Tuesday, February 05, 2013

OIA review: Dead in a ditch

Back in July, the Law Commission published its review of the Official Information Act [PDF]. While it did suggest a number of important and useful changes to the Act - greater guidance from the Ombudsman, a new Information Commissioner to handle education and reporting, extending the Act to cover parliament and the courts - the overall thrust of the review was towards greater secrecy and less transparency. Given these conclusions, I would be quite happy if the review died quietly in a ditch somewhere and was forgotten.

And that is pretty much what has happened. Yesterday, the government finally published its response to the review, in which they said that tight budgets and existing legislative priorities ruled out the full rewrite the Law Commission wanted, and that they are just going to tinker around the edges a bit. Which given the Law Commission's recommendations, can only be regarded as rearguard victory. Sure, we don't get an information commissioner, and the politicians of course once again ruled out any transparency from themselves - but we also won't be getting major rewrites of the "good government" clauses designed to increase secrecy, or changes to administrative refusal rules to allow agencies to refuse requests because they basically don't want to process them, or changes to the charging regime designed to explicitly discourage requests.

What we will be getting is better guidance from the Ombudsman, and an extension of the Act to cover the courts (both wins), combined with broader "commercial sensitivity" clauses (a loss, though Steven price thinks it won't cover anything the Act isn't already stretched to cover). The government will also be advancing changes around privacy in its review of the Privacy Act. So overall a narrow win, especially compared with the alternative. We will need to fight against the extension of commercial sensitivity, but Novopay and the government's other outsourcing failures should give us plenty of ammunition on that front.