The Independent Commission on Freedom of Information has published its lengthy review of the Act; 21 generally positive recommendations have surprised those who expected the Commission to directly damage the Act.
Matt Hancock, from the Cabinet Office, was first to react (having prior sight of the report) on behalf of the government. He said the government doesn’t have plans to legislate to change the FOI Act and has ruled out making the ministerial veto stronger.
Since the publication of the report – chaired by Lord Burns – and Hancock’s comments there has been a huge amount of reaction to the Commission.
Campaign groups and opposition political parties have said the Commission has missed an opportunity to strengthen the FOI Act and recommend new provisions to increase transparency – there are also concerns about some of the recommendations made by the five-person panel.
It’s summed up here:
Information Commissioner’s Office (statement)
We welcome the Commission’s conclusion ‘that the Act is generally working well, and that it has been one of a number of measures that have helped to change the culture of the public sector’.
While it appears that there is much to welcome in the 64-page report, we now need to study the 21 recommendations in detail.
We welcome the fact that the Commission has adopted some of the ideas put forward by the Information Commissioner in evidence, particularly his call to also consider improvements to the Act – such as clarifying the extension to the time limit, and also the Commission’s call for strengthened powers and better resourcing for the ICO.
Campaign for Freedom of Information (statement)
The Commission has stepped back from the one sided agenda which the government initially appeared to set for it, of restricting access to internal policy discussions, introducing charges for requests and making it easier for authorities to refuse requests. Instead it has also looked at the case for improving the legislation. The government itself has clearly been scalded by the criticism it has received from the press and public and made it clear it’s not prepared to take its initial agenda forward.
Labour Party (statement)
This is a remarkable government climbdown in the face of sustained opposition from Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, and the media. I’m delighted that Matthew Hancock has decided the FOI Act is ‘working well’. Labour has been making the same point for many months.
Article 19 (statement)
ARTICLE 19 would urge against implementation, including enhancing the Government’s power to veto the release of information, eliminating the First Tier Tribunal which reviews decisions of the Information Commissioner, and expanding the exemptions that allow officials to deliberate in secret.
Ben Worthy (blog post)
The episode tells us about the powerful symbolism of FOI, and the dangers of being seen to be against what it represents, which can be too heavy a price to pay for a government. Being against FOI is to be against a right, against the idea openness and, by default, to be pro-secrecy and untrustworthy, as Hillary’s email controversy shows. Perhaps Matthew Hancock was finally swayed by our parish council FOI experiment?
Society of Editors (blog post)
We have welcomed what appears to be a partial victory. Ministers have quite rightly backed away from restrictions to the Freedom of Information Act and have pledged to spread transparency throughout public services.
A powerful case was made during the Review for extending the Act and cultural change is certainly required but that is difficult to achieve. We must maintain the campaign to change the default switch from tell them nothing unless forced to one where public bodies release information which the public is entitled to have unless there is an exceptional reason for withholding it.
Transparency International (statement)
However extending FOI to the private providers of public services is a crucial test of how serious the government is on being truly open and transparent. The absence of any announcement on this is a missed opportunity and we strongly recommend that it is included in the government’s forthcoming Open Governance Partnership Action Plan.