Debate Over UK FOI Act Reform Building

13 January 2012

The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice has indicated new entities to be covered by the Freedom of Information Act, one of many changes being contemplated as part of a major ongoing government review.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information is gearing up its efforts to monitor and influence the review. A recent blog post by the Campaign announced a London briefing for Jan 18 on the subject and noted that the parliamentary committee conducting the review “is likely to recommend changes to the law.”

The post continued, “This could be an important opportunity to improve the Act. But there will also be significant pressure for new restrictions from public authorities concerned about the cost of dealing with FOI requests or lobbying for new exemptions.

The deadline is Feb. 3 for submitting evidence to the Justice select committee of the House of Commons.   It has been prompted by the Ministry of Justice which published a long memorandum highlighting specific areas of concern.

Expansion Under Review

Following a FOIA request by the Campaign for Freedom of Information,  the Ministry of Justice disclosed details about the dozens of bodies they are consulting on expanding FOIA coverage, according to another Campaign posting.

The law now applies to companies that are wholly owned by a single public authority, and the government is considering broadening that definition to cover a company which is wholly owned by more than one public authority.

McDonalds?

“The fast food chain McDonald’s could soon find it is having to dispense answers to freedom of information requests as well as the burgers and fries,” begins a blog post by the BBC’s Martin Rosenbaum.

He explains that this “is part of a wider debate on the blurring demarcation line between public and private responsibilities and how far a legal right for citizens to get access to information can intrude into the private sector.”

FOIMan Reviews Potential Changes

A detailed look-ahead is provided the FOIMan blog, whose author has recently revealed his identity.

FOI Man turns out to be Paul Gibbons, who says he has been working in FOI, directly or indirectly, for over 10 years as a government official.  He was Parliamentary Records Manager ten years ago before moving to work for the Mayor of London at the Greater London Authority, where his duties included answering FOI requests and chairing a network of FOI practitioners from other London bodies. He is now Information Compliance Manager for the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), a college of the University of London.

Gibbons says the Justice memorandum “is very important for the future of FOI,” and, “It’s probably not an overstatement to say that the next few months will decide the future of FOI.”

His posting examines various areas likely to be subject to change, including: who is covered by the Act, vexatious requests, protecting the convention of Cabinet confidentiality, increasing volume of requests, timeliness, publication schemes, cost calculation, commercial use of FOI, and the effects of FOI on policy-making.

Another blogger, Tim Turner, in 2040 Info Law Blog, warns of potentially bad results and urged activism, stating in part:

In 2012, the already declared war on the Freedom of Information Act 2000 will begin in earnest, and you will have to decide which side you’re on. Few people have the courage to oppose FOI actively (I’d have perverse admiration for anyone who did). Instead, with the Justice Committee’s post-legislative scrutiny opening up the opportunity for attack, the phrase “I’ve always been a big supporter of FOI” is one you’re going to hear a lot as it becomes the transparency equivalent of “I’m not racist but…”.

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