Politicians, journalists, lawyers, academics and many more have all criticised the government’s FOI review board that is set to recommend changes to the transparency legilsation.
On Friday the government announced the FOI Act would be looked at by its new Independent Commission on Freedom of Information.
However, the creation of the review, which will more than likely propose changes that will limit the amount of information that is released to the public, has faced a heavy backlash from many high profile public figures.
In Scotland the government is also looking to changes its Freedom of Information Act – Scotland has a more liberal regime, which was enacted at the same time as the UK one.
SNP MP Peter Grant said it is “doubly wrong” that the government are looking to change the Act. He said:
“My current interest is that I have asked the government for a copy of the inaccurate memo leaked on the authority of Alistair Carmichael during the election to attack Nicola Sturgeon – the entire text of which has been reproduced in newspapers – because I want to know whether it was sent to Mr Carmichael and the current Scottish Secretary David Mundell. But my parliamentary questions haven’t been properly answered, and FOI requests by others have been knocked back on spurious grounds. If this is the position before the FOI review, things can only get substantially worse after it.”
Trinity Mirror’s regional digital director David Higgerson wrote on his website that Freedom of Information is facing its biggest threat yet:
“The Government’s position is pretty plain. Michael Gove, the former FOI-dodging education secretary who tried to claim sending emails via gmail and not government accounts meant they weren’t covered by the Act, set out the government’s view pretty clearly shortly after becoming justice secretary.”
Douglas Carswell, the UKIP MP who defected from the Conservatives before the general election, wrote a strongly worded defence of the FOI Act in the Mail on Sunday, where he said:
“First, look at who the Government has appointed to sit on the panel.
“Perhaps Heather Brooke, an award-winning Freedom of Information campaigner whose dogged determination has caused more than a few red faces in Whitehall?
Of course not.
Journalists who have used Freedom of Information to reveal waste and duplication in government?
Not a bit of it.
Heather Brooke, who exposed the MPs’ expenses scandal using FOI, said:
UK Govt: “We are committed to being the most transparent govt in the world – but let’s figure out a way we can kill #FOI
— Heather Brooke (@newsbrooke) July 18, 2015
A Labour party spokesperson (unnamed obviously) has said that FOI, which it introduced is crucial, and shouldn’t be weakened. They told the BBC:
“The commission’s terms of reference clearly invite a change in the terms of the act. Our freedom of information laws are a crucial check on the power of the executive and the government should not attempt to restrict them by the back door.”
Lawyer, and Financial Times columnist, David Allen Green, tweeted:
Inconsistency: DRIP: government says “nothing to hide. nothing to fear”. FoI: government wants “safe space” for policy development.
— Jack of Kent (@JackofKent) July 17, 2015
Open data researcher, political academic, and FOI expert, Ben Worthy, question how easy it will be to convince the panel that – with little evidence presented by officials – there’s very little case for limiting FOI. He wrote:
As I’ve said before, the effect of FOI on policy discussions generates lots of heat but very little evidence. Tony Blair claimed FOI had led to more caution over recording decisions or inhibitions in discussion (the so-called ‘chilling effect’). Former Cabinet Sectary Gus O’Donnell also claimed it has ‘hamstrung’ government, though when pressed he could only offer isolated examples-one hypothetical and one based on the coalition negotiations, one of the most unique and unusual political events in recent decades. Doubtless we’ll hear similar claims made again.
Writing for the Independent’s comment section, Maurice Frankel from the Campaign for Freedom of Information said:
The cost of meeting FoI requests is another perennial complaint. But government rarely recognises how much wasteful spending is exposed or deterred by the threat of disclosure.
FoI is under threat: the Act provides a vital element of scrutiny which should not be weakened.