Debate about PM Gordon Brown’s Proposed Changes to UK Freedom of Information Act

12 June 2009

Discussion Rekindled about Cabinet Minutes and Revelations of Widespread MP Corruption

By Yvette M. Chin

London, United Kingdom — Civil society organizations and the news media have expressed mixed feelings about Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s proposed changes to the United Kingdoms Freedom of Information Act. Official documents could now be routinely released after 20 years instead of 30 years, and the Act could be extended to include private companies engaged in public sector work, according to Brown’s June 10 statement to the House of Commons. However, citing the need to strengthen protection for particularly sensitive material, exemptions from the law could be expanded, specifically excluding Cabinet papers and information about the Royal Family.

 

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has welcomed some of Brown‘s proposed changes, with reservations. For example, the reduction from 30 years to 20 years for the release of official records is a positive step, but falls short of the Dacre Review recommendation of a 15-year rule.

Most troubling is the possible exclusion of Cabinet papers from the Act altogether. According to Maurice Frankel, Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, “Everyone accepts that Cabinet Minutes should not normally be disclosed, other than in truly exceptional circumstances. But if someone asks for a paper submitted to a Cabinet committee 5 or 10 years ago that request should be considered on its merits.To exclude the whole class of Cabinet papers from the Act is an unnecessary, retrograde step, which will protect much material that does not need to be confidential and allow the top level of government to operate in absolute secrecy.”

The outgoing Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, commented recently: “People are suspicious of secrecy and cover-up, and no longer expect to be kept in the dark. Better education and modern communications mean that the public expect to be treated like grown-ups, with ready access to what is going on.” Thomas welcomed Brown‘s proposals to extend the FOI law, but with a warning: “Open government is good government, but it is has to be properly paid for.”

Prime Minister Brown‘s proposed changes have reignited the February 2009 controversy over Justice Secretary Jack Straws veto of the release of pre-Iraq Cabinet Minutes. Also, many feel that recent revelations about the expenses of Members of Parliament have validated the Freedom of Information Act in the United Kingdom and further demonstrate the need for active disclosure of politicians finances.

LINKS

Campaign for Freedom of Information

UK Information Commissioner

Dacre Review

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