On a quiet, sunny, Friday afternoon in July 2015 the Conservative government announced that it would review the Freedom of Information Act.
A panel – The Freedom of Information Commission (with FOI Commissioners) – was formed to look at the scope of the Act and recommend changes.
The group of five is to report on what they find about the FOI Act. It was originally due to report its findings by the end of 2015 but this has been delayed due to the overwhelming defence of the FOI Act by campaigners, journalists, and more. This page will keep a running list of the developments that take place from the announcement to the findings and the fall-out from them.
To see the latest articles on the FOI Commission’s work visit here. (This article was originally published on July 19 2015 and has been updated as the review has progressed).
January 27: The Financial Times reports that government ministers are looking to climbdown from plans to weaken the FOI Act. The newspaper reports that only “minor technical amendments” to the legislation will be made.
January 25: The Commission holds its second day of oral evidence. Videos of the evidence sessions from both days of oral evidence are available on the Cabinet Office’s YouTube page and transcripts were published on the Commission’s webpage. As part of the evidence session the editor of the Press Association said introducing charges for FOI requests would “strangle” journalistic investigations.
This is the most viewed evidence session:
January 24: Jack Straw, a member of the Independent Commission, is said to be helping respond to FOI requests. The news shows his continued involvement and closeness to the FOI process.
January 23: The Campaign for Freedom of Information says FOI should be strengthen, not weakened. The Campaign says charities and private contractors in receipt of public money should be covered by the Act.
January 20: The Commission has its first public oral evidence session. At the hearing, as reported by the Telegraph, discussions were had that covered whether civil servants should receive greater protection under the FOI Act. It was suggested that communications from civil servants to ministers should be treated with the same degree of sensitivity as Cabinet papers. The Information Commissioner says the FOI Act does not need rewriting.
January 17: Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake launched a bill under the 10 minute rule in Parliament that calls on charities, private companies and the royal household to be fully covered by the FOI Act.
January 7: It is reported that charities receiving public funding for part of their work could be subject to FOI requests. The Times reported ministers were considering including charities under the ACt but would also extend the power of the ministerial veto. A charities boss has previously spoken out to say this would be a mistake.
December 30: Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron echoes Labour calls for the FOI review to be scrapped. The party leader told the Guardian:
“The group looking into it strikes me at least to have a bias towards limiting access to FoI requests for quite spurious reasons.
“I’m sure there is a cost – an administrative cost and a time cost – to providing this information, but that’s the price you pay for living in a liberal society.”
December 22: Cabinet Office Minister Matt Hancock, the man in charge of overseeing the FOI review, said he does not see any need for large changes to the Act. A source close to the minister said: “If the inquiry came back with no changes, Matthew would be very happy.”
December 18:Tom Watson repeats his previous call for the FOI Commission to be scrapped.
December 15: Sir Jeremy Heywood, the UK’s top civil servant, was attacked for previous comments about the FOI Act needing to be restricted. Bob Kerslake – a predecessor of Heywood – said more transparency is needed, not less. The Mail splashed on the story:
December 11: The Sun reports that government ministers are losing enthusiasm to introduce any restrictions to the FOI Act. The newspaper reports:
The Sun has discovered the Government has not submitted any evidence for the need for change to an independent commission doing a review.
A senior Tory minister said: “Nobody in the Government wants to touch this now, it’s a very hot political potato.”
December 8-10: Evidence submitted to the FOI Commission is published. It is published in two waves: combined documents from organisations and large documents from individual organisations.
The evidence reveals a number of different positions on the FOI Act, these include:
- Councils call for FoI fees, lower cost limits, public interest tests and attack ‘lazy journalism’ (reported by Press Gazette)
- Now town hall fat cats launch assault on your right to know: Councils demand fees are introduced for handling data about their salaries and perks (reported by the Daily Mail)
- MPs’ expenses body complains about the cost of censoring information (reported by the Birmingham Mail)
- Charities, trade unions and human rights groups join journalists in urging Government not to weaken FoI (reported by Press Gazette)
- The FOI proposals are ‘entirely antipathetic to the mood of the times, in which voters expect more, not less transparency in the way they are governed’, according to Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre’s personal submission.
December 3: In a wave of transparency the FOI Commission decides it will, along with all the evidence it has received in submissions, publish minutes of its meetings and those with external bodies. The minutes of its meetings reveal that the head of PR from the Cabinet Office was drafted in to provide advice to the Commission.
November 30: Senior Conservative politician David Davis said enough Tory rebels could be found to oppose any changes to the FOI Act. Davis said:
“Whatever they come up with, we can find an appropriate response in one house or another,” Davis told an all-parliamentary briefing organised by the cross-party campaign to defend freedom of information. “I think this is an eminently winnable campaign to protect what I think is the strongest constitutional legacy of the [Tony] Blair government.”
November 24: Lord Burns, the chair of the Commission, said the review has received 30,000 evidence submissions that will help it produce the final report. Burns also said it would be impossible for the panel to complete the review before the end of 2015 and its report would be delayed until 2016, although no date was given. It was also announced the review would hold two oral evidence sessions during January 2016. Burns’ full statement said:
November 21: The FOI Commission stops accepting evidence for its public consultation.
November 17: The information regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office, speaks out about attacks to the FOI Act. In its evidence to the Commission the body says that introducing fees for FOI requests would put people off making them. As reported by the Telegraph the ICO said:
“The Freedom of Information Act can rightly challenge and pose awkward questions to public authorities. That is part of democracy.
“However, checks and balances are needed to ensure that the challenges are proportionate when viewed against all the other vital things a public authority has to do.
November 9: Away from the FOI Commission a separate attack on the FOI Act is launched in the form of a higher education white paper. The proposals, according to the Guardian, said the universities should not be included under the scope of the FOI Act. The newspaper reported:
The government’s higher education green paper says educational institutions could be excluded from FOI legislation, which provides rules for the release of recorded information.
The paper argues this would create a level playing field with private providers, which are not subject to requests and are taking a greater role in higher education.
November 6: Press Gazette’s petition to save FOI reaches 10,000 signatures. By the end of 2015 it climbed to almost 50,000.
October 31: Labour launched its own Commission to review the FOI Act. Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson said:
“This is the most secretive government in my lifetime and that needs to change.
“Obviously there are things government cannot make public but there has to be good reason for secrecy.”
October 29: Leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling said the FOI Act should be restricted in places because journalists “misuse” the Act for their research.
October 19: The Society of Editors launches its ‘Hands Off FOI’ campaign. The campaign urges media editors to write to their MPs and ask them to oppose any changes that would water down the FOI Act. Nick Turner, the president of the Society of Editors said:
This would be a cynical and, indeed, dangerous backward step in the long fight for greater openness and transparency.
If MPs really want to serve their constituents, they will support this campaign to maintain the tremendous work of the Campaign for Freedom of Information.
October 11: “A very British farce,” was how the Guardian described the Freedom of Information Commission. The paper’s editorial said:
To say that this bunch is more likely to take an insider’s view – to think first of the perspective of the bureaucracy being asked awkward questions, and only second of the citizen trying to root out inconvenient truths – is to put it mildly.
October 10: An editorial in The Sun says that charges for FOI requests would be an outrage.
October 9: On the same day as the Commission publishes its call for evidence (see below), it holds its first briefing for journalists. The briefing outlined that charges could be introduced for those making requests under the FOI Act, the change would be the first time that charges have been made for all requests in the UK. The person giving the briefing says they want the Commission to be as transparent as possible. Yet, it doesn’t allow reporting on who gave the briefing.
October 9: The Commission publishes its call for evidence. The original November deadline for the Commission to produce its report by is pushed back until the end of the year. It’s call for evidence, which was open until November 20, said it is looking at four areas:
- The public interest in disclosing advice and policy information provided to ministers
- The burden of the Act on public authorities
- The appeals and enforcement process
- The ministerial veto.
Within these four areas the Commission said it will try to answer the following six questions.
September 24: Sun Editor Tony Gallagher said the Act is under an “assault as never before”. In a speech he said that the government is trying to “rein” the FOI Act in and, as reported by Press Gazette, restrictions will make it harder for journalists to do their jobs. Meanwhile, the government’s top civil servant, Sir Jeremy Heywood, at a separate event covered by Civil Service World, said: “there are some chilling effects, no doubt about it”.
September 21: 140+ media and campaigning organisations wrote a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron. The letter, organised by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, called on the PM not to restrict the FOI Act and also to consider changing the panel so that it also looks at extending the FOI Act further. Some of the letter, which can be found in full here, said:
Such a review cannot provide a proper basis for significant changes to the FOI Act.
The short timescale for the Commission’s report, which is due by the end of November, further reinforces this impression.
At the time of writing, half way towards the Commission’s final deadline, it has so far not even invited evidence from the public.
September 20: Deputy Labour Party leader Tom Watson says that he will oppose all attempts to weaken the FOI Act and says there should be more FOI. He said:
“Here’s a commission currently to review the FOI Act and that will mean they will almost inevitably propose to diminish the powers.
“I don’t think the Act is strong enough.
September 14: The FOI Commission tells this website that it will start to take evidence at the end of September.
September 9: Senior Conservative MP David Davis branded the Commission a ‘stitch-up’. He told the BBC that the FOI Act already protects the internal discussions on policy formulation and doesn’t need changing.
September 8: The FOI Act will not be extended to cover the FOI Commission Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock confirms.
September 4: Is the FOI Commission a stitch-up? Is what the Daily Mail asks in its piece on FOI requests about the panel’s formation being refused by the Cabinet Office.
August 26: The backlash against Jack Straw’s involvement in the FOI Commission continued. A senior Labour Source told the Daily Mail his inclusion is his own choice.
August 24: Labour say Jack Straw is an “establishment stooge” and is working with the Conservatives to dismantle the FOI Act. They say he is not representing the party on the FOI Commission and was happy to work in a “personal capacity”.
August 19: Kirsty Williams, the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, has spoken out against the FOI Commission and said that more access to information is needed, rather than a curbing of the right to know. She said that private companies working under public sector contracts should be covered by the Act.
August 18: FOI requests asking for more details about the formation of the FOI Commission, those that were considered for the positions, and correspondence about the role of the people on the panel, were refused by the Cabinet Office.
August 14: The Open Government Network, which is pushing and working with the government to make it more transparent and accessible, sent a letter to Cabinet Minister Matt Hancock to voice its concerns about the FOI Commission. The letter was signed by more than 30 of the Network’s members, including; Unlock Democracy, Open Rights Group, Centre for Investigative Journalism, Article 19, medConfidential and more. The open letter expressed concern about the nature of the inquiry and said:
We ask the Government to publish its reasons for limiting the Commission’s remit solely to measures that would restrict the right of access while omitting any consideration of what might be needed to enhance access under the Act.
August 14: The FOI Commission is listed – by the Guardian – among 100 things the Conservative government has done in its first 100 days.
August 5: The Open Data Institute has appealed to the FOI Commission not to confuse open data (its methodology, values, and more) with the Freedom of Information Regime:
Open data is one mechanism to enable greater transparency of government – how it works, how much things cost and where processes could be more efficient. It is a complement to – not a substitute for – the citizen’s right to information guaranteed in the Freedom of Information Act.
August 4: Things on the FOI Commission front appear to have died down a little. There haven’t been any new announcements for a couple of weeks and it’s possible that it is the calm before the storm. However, Liberty, the civil rights group, has come out in support of FOI:
This attempt to crack down on the FOIA is breathtakingly hypocritical, taking “no privacy for you, no scrutiny for us” to a whole new level. It may well give Government cover to pull down the shutters, denying us access to information of potentially profound public interest. To seek to limit their accountability in this way, in the face of such recent scrutiny showing that the FOIA is working well, reveals a startling contempt for the public’s right to know how our institutions are run and how our money is spent.
August 2: Freedom of Information may well be an essential human right, according to this branch of the UN.
July 24: How much of the government’s ‘safe space’ for decision making is under threat? FOI Man has blogged on the amount of times the Cabinet Office has had to release information after incorrectly using the exemptions the government are likely to change. Hint: The answer isn’t many
July 22: ‘Sir Cover-Up’ Jeremy Heywood, aka the head of the civil service, said there are problems with the FOI Act- he basically repeated the government line.
There have been one or two areas – particularly where we are talking about speaking truth unto power in relation to projects, for example, or the risks of certain activities – where the fear that that might then be published within a year or so, I think, probably would lead people to be less candid in writing than they otherwise would.
Also, there are some questions around the process by which the veto is used. Parliament has intended there to be a perfectly workable veto and that is proving increasingly difficult to use in practice.
Meanwhile a former government minister, a former minister responsible for FOI nonetheless, has stood up for the Act:
— Campaign for FOI (@CampaignFoI) July 22, 2015
July 22: The petition from 38 Degrees passed 70,000 signatures.
July 21: The 38 Degrees petition to protect FOI has passed more than 60,000 signatures.
July 21: Transparency International UK, a charity which works to stop corruption, has said, in a statement to the Independent, that the consultation needs to be rethought:
There should be a proper consultation with those who support the Act, not simply a result that reflects the opinions of those who have always opposed it.”
Ultimately, it is hard to see how weakening the Act fits with the Prime Minister’s stated objective that the UK should be ‘the most open and transparent government in the world’.
July 20: Tim Berners Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation has also spoken out about the proposed review of the FOI Act. It said that there should be a transparency specialist on the panel and went on to say:
Open data initiatives rely on proactive disclosure, but it is vital that open data is reinforced by strong freedom of information mechanisms to ensure citizens can access what government agencies may not wish to disclose. We urge the Government to uphold its Freedom of Information Act, and appoint a panel member with expertise in government transparency to ensure all points of view are considered.
July 20: MySociety, the charity behind the open FOI making platform WhatDoTheyKnow, has said:
“But for FOI to really work it has to be applied across all departments, in all public bodies, with as few loopholes or exceptions as possible. If Government itself is shown to be sidestepping its responsibilities in transparency, then what is to stop other authorities from taking their cue from them? As we learned at our recent Alaveteli conference, during which we heard from practitioners running FOI sites in many countries, when bodies stop responding to requests, public accountability suffers.”
July 20: Amid growing concern about the impartiality of the FOI Commission Labour MP Wayne David told the House of Commons that it isn’t cross-party as Jack Straw doesn’t represent them.
July 20: The Green Party has said that any changes to FOI shouldn’t be changed, their Justice Spokesperson, Charley Pattison said: “Transparent and accountable decision-making is essential to a successful democracy. Freedom of Information requests have often been the strongest weapon used against corruption in government. The FoI Act already contains adequate protections for sensitive information; any further restrictions will most likely be to protect politicians rather than the public.”
July 20: Campaigning website 38 Degrees launched a petition to help protect the FOI Act. It said politicians are desperate to “water-down our right to hold them to account”.
July 19: Former Conservative MP Douglas Carswel, who defected to UKIP in the run up to the 2015 general election, criticised his former partying in the Mail on Sunday saying:
Over the past decade, digital technology has made it far cheaper and easier to disclose information. Claiming that the costs and bother of answering FoI requests are reasons not to is nonsense. Instead of rowing back from greater disclosure, a truly modernising administration should be looking to build on the Act by making disclosure the norm. Data should be made available without members of the public having to ask for it.
July 18: The Campaign for Freedom of Information attacked the review panel saying that there are no advocates for transparency sitting on it. Jack Straw, a member of the panel – and FOI skeptic – said that the review panel was openminded.
July 18: The Independent published this bold front page:
July 17: Trinity Mirror journalist David Higgerson says that the review is an “all out assault on the public’s right to know” as criticism of the review begins to grow. BuzzFeed reports that a number of MPs are already becoming outspoken about the changes and saying that FOI should be extended, rather than curtailed. Labour deputy leader candidate, at the time, Tom Watson told Buzzfeed:
In announcing the commission, the government are really saying they’re going to water down the act. This is the wrong direction.
I want greater statutory obligations on public bodies to reveal information in a more timely fashion … and I also want to extend the remit of the act to any private sector company providing a public service.
July 17: The Guardian report that the review of the FOI Act “may curb” access to government papers. It then goes on to publish the following cartoon based on an FOI disclosure that day about the UK bombing ISIS in Syria, despite the government saying this wouldn’t happen.
July 17: The government announce that a Independent Commission on Freedom of Information would be formed to look at the FOI Act. The group of five were drawn from a ‘cross-party’ group and will look at the public interest in disclosures, whether it is too easy to disclose information around advice given to ministers and government policy, and the cost of the Act. They will report by November.