A First: UK Cabinet Meeting Minutes Disclosed

14 October 2010

The minutes of a 1986 British Cabinet meeting have been released under the Freedom of Information Act, the first time this has occurred.

The minutes concerned a stormy session in which Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine suddenly resigned during a discussion over the possible financial rescue of the struggling Westland helicopter company. He was protesting  then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s insistence that all public pronouncements by ministers on the Westland crisis would first have to be cleared by the Cabinet Office.

The minutes were requested by the BBC’s Martin Rosenbaum in February 2005, who wrote about in a rcent blog post.

This is the first time that cabinet minutes have been disclosed under the FOI Act. In releasing them, the government complied with a recent ruling by the Information Tribunal. The previous government vetoed the release of cabinet minutes on the Iraq war and cabinet sub-committee minutes on devolution from 1997.

Proposals on UK FOIA Reform Forthcoming, Minister Says

Lord Tom McNally, the minister responsible for freedom of information in the United Kingdom said Sept. 18 that an announcement would be made later this year on potential changes to the Freedom of Information Act, according to a report by the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

He said: “What the coalition has committed itself to is an examination of how the Freedom of Information Act has worked, where it could be extended within its present powers and where it might be extended by primary legislation.”

At the same meeting, MP Alan Beith, the chair of the House of Commons Justice Committee, said that the UK information commissioner should be made an officer of Parliament and be appointed and funded by Parliament instead of the Ministry of Justice.  His committee had recommended this change in two reports in 2006 and 2007 and he hoped the coalition government – which is known to be considering the issue – would implement it, according to the CFOI summary, which continued:

Sir Alan said there were other improvements to the FOI Act that the government could adopt, some of which were included in a Ten Minute Rule Bill introduced in September 2010 by Tom Brake MP. He promised that the Justice Committee would highlight these issues, monitor them and encourage the government to build on what had been achieved before. “Freedom of information, uncomfortable as it is for those in power, is a good news story. It’s a genuine reform which has shone light into many places in our system of government” he said.

On the role of the information commissioner, McNally said the case for the commissioner being directly responsible to Parliament was a very strong one but it had not yet been decided.

He pointed out that a review of the Data Protection Act and directive was taking place and that, Francis Maude the Cabinet Office minister was promoting the release of data sets across Whitehall, CFOI said.

Machine-Readable

 An article in The Guardian said that Conservative Party Chairman Francis Maude, speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham on Oct. 3, said that the Freedom of Information Act will be amended so that all data released through FOI must be in a reusable and machine-readable format.

The Guardian reported:

This means using formats such as .csv, an open spreadsheet format, or .xls, which is used by Microsoft’s Excel – but not the portable document format. PDFs can only be opened as visual files, with software such as spreadsheets unable to extract the actual information.

The government’s transparency agenda, Maude said, has already ensured that information including the Treasury’s Coins spending database, a list of all quango chiefs and civil servants earning more than £150,000 and government tenders which exceed £10,000 have been published.

“We want to go much further,” he told delegates. “Thousands of commercial and social entrepreneurs have been frustrated by their inability to obtain and reuse datasets. I’m sorry to say that some councils spend time and money deliberately making data unusable to anyone else.”

The coalition’s program for government documents has promised:”We will create a new ‘right to data’ so that government-held datasets can be requested and used by the public, and then published on a regular basis.”

The relevant extract from Maude’s speech is:

Now, those citizens who want to engage, who have this sense of social responsibility, are entitled to expect the state to be open with them.  To tell them what’s going on.  To share information and data with them openly and transparently.  They want information on where the state is spending their money, so they can demand the right to redirect it and shape it.  Small businesses and voluntary organisations want information on which contracts are being tendered, so they can offer better and cheaper ways to deliver them.  We’ve already published a wealth of information – the Treasury’s spending database; a list of all quango heads and civil servants earning over £150k; and government tender documents over £10k.  We want to go much further. Thousands of commercial and social entrepreneurs have been frustrated by their inability to obtain and reuse datasets. I’m sorry to say that some councils spend time and money deliberately making data unusable to anyone else. So, as part of building the Right to Data, we will amend the Freedom of Information Act to ensure that all data released through FOI must be in a reusable and machine readable format, available to everyone and able to be exploited for social and commercial purposes.

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