FOIMan comments on the announcement of a new FOI Commission and a change to the way that FOI is managed within government.
Concern has been expressed here and elsewhere at the appointment of Michael Gove as Justice Secretary. We feared what he might do to FOI, given that his past involvement with the Act had been fairly acrimonious.
Well…there’s good news, and there’s bad news. The good news is that Michael Gove is no longer responsible for FOI. The bad news is that responsibility for FOI within government is moving to the Cabinet Office. Which, if their record in answering requests is anything to go by, may well be worse.
This was merely the postscript though to a written statement laid in Parliament by Lord Bridges, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Office. The big announcement (after the now obligatory claim to be the “most transparent government in the world”™) was that a new Commission is to be established to review FOI, after all:
after more than a decade in operation it is time that the process is reviewed, to make sure it’s working effectively.
Which sounds convincing until you recall that that was the justification for the post-legislative scrutiny carried out by the Justice Select Committee in 2012. That committee inquiry found little evidence of a chilling effect, made limited recommendations in respect of the cost of FOI, and concluded that “The Freedom of Information Act has been a significant enhancement of our democracy.” It is hard not to see this new review as an attempt to keep going until the government gets the answer it wants.
Such an impression is reinforced by the membership of the Commission. It has cross-party membership to give the impression of balance but includes Jack Straw, a man who has made no secret of his regrets over the legislation he introduced, a former Permanent Secretary of the Treasury, Lord Burns, and Lord Howard of Lympne – David Cameron’s predecessor as Conservative leader and a man so disinclined to answer questions that Jeremy Paxman notoriously had to ask him the same question twelve times.
It seems clear that the government is determined to weaken FOI. The Commission is due to report in November which does not allow for much consultation in the meantime.
The Information Commissioner has issued an initial response to the announcement. It is hard to disagree with its sentiments:
The Act is not without its critics, but in providing a largely free and universal right of access to information, subject to legitimate exceptions, we believe the freedom of information regime is fit for purpose.
If you oppose any weakening of FOI, the best thing you can do is to donate to the Campaign for Freedom of Information.