The chilling impact the Government’s FOI Commission looks set to have on our right to know

If a picture tells a thousand words, then a screen grab of an article on the Guardian’s website is perhaps a bit of a con, but it sums up neatly the grave threat currently facing the Freedom of Information Act:

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The post-election review set up to look into the working of the Freedom Of Information Act has felt like a foregone conclusion. Its terms of reference were originally as follows:

The Commission will review the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (‘the Act’) to consider whether there is an appropriate public interest balance between transparency, accountability and the need for sensitive information to have robust protection, and whether the operation of the Act adequately recognises the need for a ‘safe space’ for policy development and implementation and frank advice. The Commission may also consider the balance between the need to maintain public access to information, and the burden of the Act on public authorities, and whether change is needed to moderate that while maintaining public access to information.

In other words, it is tasked with removing the assumption that the ‘public has the right to know’, and replacing it with ‘the public has a right to know, so long as we want them to know, and it’s not too much of a hassle for us to tell them.’

That was back in July. Late last week, the commission – whose members include the former home secretary Jack Straw, the man who dismissed his introduction of FOI as one of his biggest political mistakes in his autobiography (and as the man who was foreign secretary at the time of the Iraq war…) – held a briefing to encourage people to submit their views on the Act.

The six journalists who attended, according to the Guardian, were asking to keep quotes anonymous – an action which hardly supports the opening stating of the commission’s founding press release: “We are committed to being the most transparent government in the world – and were also told one item up for discussion is payment for requests for information.

Make no mistake, this is less an open-minded review by experts in their field, it’s a stitch-up to try and close down the ability of the public to ask awkward questions. As the Guardian reported:

The five-member committee includes: Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary, who is already on the record calling for the act to be rewritten; Lord Carlile of Berriew, who accused the Guardian of “a criminal act” when it published stories using National Security Agency material leaked by Edward Snowden; Lord Howard, whose gardening expenses were criticised after being exposed following FoI requests; and Dame Patricia Hodgson, the deputy chair of Ofcom, which has criticised the act for its “chilling effect” on government.

They are also all people who have experience of being on the receiving end of FOI requests, rather than using it to get information. That is a basic failing of a commission which is supposed to be open-minded. The fact it took them two months to decide if they intended to consult publicly speaks volumes.

But how open-minded can we expect the commission to be when it comes to considering submissions about the Act? If Mr Straw – who was arguably the ‘biggest name’ in my contacts book when I worked at the Lancashire Evening Telegraph – and his previous comments are to be taken as some sort of guide, the answer is: not very.

When asked what he thought of the Campaign for Freedom Of Information’s objections to the lop-sided make-up of the commission this is what the BBC reported:

Mr Straw said some critics of the commission would complain even it were “chaired by the Archangel Gabriel”.

“Of course, the Freedom of Information Campaign would criticise any review…. but I go into this inquiry to be as open-minded as possible and to weigh the evidence carefully including that from the Freedom of Information Campaign.”

That, sadly, is typical Straw. Typical New Labour in fact. In many ways a master politician, and a rare example of a minister who still cared about his constituency, Straw’s weakness was his New Labour’s biggest one too: People with an opposing view were too often discounted as being wrong. It’s why the rise of the BNP took so many in Straw’s Blackburn Labour Party by surprise, but didn’t shock those who listened to what was actually being said by those around them.

The Campaign for FOI wouldn’t object to any review of FOI, as Straw suggests. In fact, the Campaign would argue FOI legislation does need a review. It needs to encompass more organisations. It needs to strengthen the ability to force government bodies such as the Cabinet Office – now in charge of FOI – to respect the Act, and actually respond. It would also point that this was reviewed just a couple of years ago.

Straw surely knows this. But it’s just easier to cast a slur. That’s the not the action of someone who is able to be openminded about FOI. Straw has pledged to be as ‘open-minded as possible’ about the Act. His actions to date suggest he can’t be very open-minded at all. That should worry us all.

The two main challenges to FOI can be addressed easily:

It makes it too hard for government advisors to speak freely: There are exemptions which ensure the formulation of government policy isn’t harmed by FOI. There is also the ability to redact the names and roles of those offering advice. And as for the suggestion FOI discourages people to commit information to paper, this is hardly new. Tony Blair’s government mastered ‘sofa diplomacy’ with limited minute taking long before FOI kicked in during 2005

The burden on public authorities: This is the back door to restrict access to information through charges to tighter rules around the time spent finding information. The burden would be much lighter if councils and government departments kept better records, were more open with information in the first place, and worked harder to make FOI a smoother process for everyone.

It doesn’t need a commission to solve those problems. It takes common sense coupled with a desire to really have the most transparent government in the world. What’s abundantly clear through the creation of the commission is that both that common sense and desire are lacking in Westminster.

Everyone likes accountability until they are the ones who are accountable, or so it seems. Make no mistake, FOI faces its greatest threat yet. This is little more than an attempt to seal off the state from the scrutiny it is obligated to be subject to. How the commission handles the public responses will reveal just how open-minded they really are. My gut feeling is not to expect too much. Only volume of opposition can help stop this.

Details of the commission’s call for evidence can be found here.

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