Thursday, March 03, 2016

Has freedom of information in the UK been saved?

Last year, the British government established a strapped-chicken review into the Freedom of Information Act. Composed of establishment figures, including FOI-hater Jack Straw, the "independent" review was widely expected to recommend limiting the public's access to information. All in the name of "better government" (of the peasants), of course...

The commission reported back yesterday. And while they've made some fairly toxic recommendations around limiting appeal rights and the use of the Ministerial veto (short version: they want FOI decisions to be less able to be appealed, and for the government to be able to make them unappealable if they win the first round), they've backed away from their expected position on mandatory charges and broader protection for Cabinet documents. But more importantly, their recommendations don't matter anyway - because the government pre-emptively declared that they were not going to legislate to change the Act:

A government announcement that there will be “no legal changes” to the Freedom of Information legislation following a review of the act was being cautiously welcomed by campaigners on Monday.

The report of a commission established in July by Matthew Hancock, Cabinet Office minister, to examine whether the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act 2000 is too expensive and intrusive is to be published on Tuesday.

Pledging to encourage transparency in the public sector, Hancock said on the eve of publication: “After 10 years we took the decision to review the Freedom of Information Act and we have found it is working well.

“We will not make any legal changes to FoI. We will spread transparency throughout public services, making sure all public bodies routinely publish details of senior pay and perks. After all, taxpayers should know if their money is funding a company car or a big pay off.”

Which is broadly good news, in that things won't be getting any worse - but it will also prevent things getting any better. And while the major recommendations were efforts to limit public scrutiny and oversight, there were some good ones as well. For example, limiting extensions, requiring responses to be published, and following New Zealand in treating information held by contractors as being held by agencies. These would all be useful improvements;, and its sad that they won't be coming to the UK any time soon. But at least the establishment won't be legislating for more secrecy.

The full report can be read here.