The Government tonight announced that it wouldn’t block the release of documents it holds relating to the Hillsborough disaster. As reported widely, the Information Commissioner had ruled the Cabinet Office should release the documents to the BBC following an FOI request which dates back to 2009.
The Government’s new position is being portrayed by some as a U-turn. It had, after all, last week confirmed it planned to appeal the Information Commissioner’s ruling, saying that the documents should only be released once the independent Hillsborough Panel, set up AFTER the BBC’s FOI request was submitted, decided it was the right time to release them.
So what’s changed? Well not very much, in truth. The Government has simply said it is happy for the documents to be disclosed, but when the Hillsborough Panel decides they should be released, and that the families of the 96 victims get to see the documents first. As it happens, there is nothing in the terms of reference of the panel to promote the release of all the documents, a point discovered by the BBC’s FOI expert Martin Rosenbaum.
I have no doubt the panel fully intends to release as many documents as possible but the Government shouldn’t be passing the buck. It has been subject of an FOI request and has been told to release the information. It should do it.
The Government has done little more today than try and remove ministers from looking as though they were covering something up. In the face of an e-petition of 125,000 signatures, ministers, I suspect, will have been keen to show that they mean business when it comes to transparency.
The Freedom of Information Act provides the right for us to ask anything we want. It is down to the body being asked for information to determine what should be released. If we disagree with their conclusion, we can appeal the decision to the Information Commissioner, who will rule on the matter.
What shouldn’t happen is that the body involved then re-writes the rules on when the information should be released. That’s what has happened in this case.
Rather than tell civil servants to just adhere to the Information Commissioner’s ruling – and released the Cabinet Office documents – ministers are playing along with this idea that it’s somehow acceptable to sit on an Information Commissioner ruling until next year, and to pass the decision on what is released and when to an independent body which didn’t even exist when the FOI request was made.
Effectively, the Cabinet Office – the very government department which is supposed to be leading the transparency agenda – is making up its own rules, and for no good reason.Put bluntly, the Government has no legal right to stipulate who gets to see the results of an FOI request first.
Labour isn’t much better here either – shadow minister Andy Burnham also supports the idea of the panel deciding what is released and when. But that isn’t what the law says. Politicians on both sides of the house seem to think FOI legislation is there is be used when it suits, and ignored when it doesn’t.
In short, nothing has changed in the last 24 hours other than ministers getting twitchy at being seen to be orchestrating some sort of cover up. Maybe they aren’t – but they’re certainly demonstrating that they believe they’re above the law.