Freedom of Information Act 2000

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Publication.png Freedom of Information Act 2000 
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The UK's Freedom Of Information Act 2000 (FOI), which came into force in 2005, purports to allow anyone access to information held by public authorities, but contains several escape clauses, including one for anything about Parliament that the Speaker of the Commons decides to keep confidential. Those conducting public inquiries can also refuse information requests without giving reasons, even when the information is of great public interest and might expose the abuse of power.

Scandals

The FOI has been responsible for the exposure of some of the biggest scandals in local and national Government after it was brought into force by Tony Blair's government on 1 January 2005. These include the MPs’ expenses scandal, exposed by the Daily Telegraph after a FOI request for the publication MPs’ allowances receipts was granted. Others include unanswered phone calls to 101, the non-emergency police number, and delays that are experienced by the seriously ill at hospitals’ accident and emergency departments.

Blair described his decision to bring in the legislation as his biggest regret. Describing himself as “an irresponsible nincompoop," in his 2014 autobiography A Journey, he said:

“There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”[1]

FOI review

In July 2015, Ministers launched a cross-party review into the Act just hours after papers released under FOI on 17 July 2015 disclosed that British pilots had been clandestinely involved in bombing in Syria.[2] The review will examine “whether there is an appropriate public interest balance between transparency, accountability and the need for sensitive information to have robust protection”. It will also look at “whether the operation of the Act adequately recognises the need for a ‘safe space’ for policy development and implementation and frank advice”. The review will also look at “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”.

The Cabinet Office, having taken over control of FOI policy from the Ministry of Justice, added that the Government wanted to review the work of the Act over a decade after it was introduced. The review commission’s chairman is Lord Terry Burns, a former Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, while other members include Lord Carlile of Berriew, the Government’s former adviser on "terrorism" legislation, Dame Patricia Hodgson chair of Ofcom, Jack Straw (former Labour Home Secretary) and Michael Howard (member of Le Cercle and former Tory leader).

Critical reaction

Freedom of Information campaigners, who were critical of the review because there is no journalist nor any champion of open government on the panel, called it “bad news” not least because MPs on Parliament's Justice Committee had carried out an exhaustive inquiry two years ago. The Government-appointed panel includes Jack Straw, who boasts of having emasculated the original FOI Bill, and is unlikely to recommend any strengthening of the public’s right to know. Maurice Frankel, founder of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said that "It is obviously an attempt to stop the pubic having insight into any internal discussions taking place in Government. There is nobody there on the review commission whose previous record is of having used the act and having benefited from the open-ness it provides. That perspective is clearly not represented on the commission itself."

Lord Antony Lester QC wrote:

"Since 2013, the Government has begun releasing official records to the National Archives at Kew when they are 20 years old, instead of 30. However, the Cabinet Office is preventing the publication of information about certain controversial policies such as the poll tax, the ban on Peter Wright's Spycatcher (a case in which I was involved), the SAS shooting of three IRA members in Gibraltar, and the prosecution, trial and release of the “Lockerbie bomber”, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi (again, a case in which I have a professional interest). I can see no good reason why government information about such matters should remain secret."

I tabled a parliamentary question asking which instruments have been used to grant exemptions from deposit in the National Archives since the introduction of the 20-year rule. The Minister, Baroness Neville-Rolfe (of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport) signed this answer:

“Departments that wish to physically retain custody of records for an administrative or other reason (such as national security) for longer than the prescribed period require a retention instrument. Since 2013, … retention instrument numbers 111 to 119 have been approved.”

I have now asked whether the Government will publish “retention instruments 111 to 119” and their reasons for not transferring the records to the National Archives.[3]


References

  1. "Politicians embarrassed by Freedom of Information laws given chance to tighten rules"
  2. "Freedom of Information Act review 'may curb access to government papers'"
  3. "Secrets the Government shouldn’t keep"