Comments In, Hearing Set As UK Furthers FOIA Review

17 February 2012

The public comment period has ended and the Justice Select Committee has scheduled its first “evidence session” on possible revision of the United Kingdom’s Freedom of Information law.

The committee will hold its first evidence session Feb. 21 and hear from: Maurice Frankel, Director, Campaign for Freedom of Information; Alexandra Runswick, Deputy Director, Unlock Democracy; and Alex Skene, Volunteer, What Do They Know? Also appearing will be three witnesses from the UCL Constitution Unit: Robert Hazell, Director; Ben Worthy, Senior Researcher; and Jim Amos, Honorary Senior Research Associate, University College of London Constitution Unit.

The Constitution Unit carried out research that found that the 2000 UK law “has met its core objective of transparency and, in the correct circumstances, accountability. Yet it has not achieved the secondary objectives, the `wider transformative’ aims that flow from them.” (See previous report.) The results are quoted in a Ministry of Justice memo issued when the review effort was announced in December on the committee website and discussed in a recent Guardian article.

The Guardian reported that the chairman of the justice select committee, Alan Beith, “said he was a supporter of the act, but added that he was aware some ministers and civil servants wanted to rein in what they regarded as a costly burden on the government.”

An official of the opposition Labour Party Feb. 14 issued a statement critical of the effort. 

Andy Slaughter MP, Labour’s Shadow Justice Minister, said:

It’s alarming that this Tory-led Government is looking at introducing a charge for submitting Freedom of Information requests. Labour introduced Freedom of Information legislation as a means of opening up the public sector and improving transparency in Government. A charge payable for each freedom of information request is nothing less than a tax on transparency.

Freedom of Information is a step towards healthy governance. It permits scrutiny of those in power in central and local government and devolved administrations. Introducing a charge is a potential backward step, and will unravel Labour’s drive to open up the public sector to wider scrutiny.

Comments submitted as part of the review process are not posted.

Release of Minutes Blocked

In another development,  the Campaign for Freedom of Information “expressed regret” at the Attorney General’s decision to veto the release of minutes of the Cabinet Ministerial Committee on Devolution to Scotland and Wales and the English Regions. The Information Commissioner had ordered their partial disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, supporting deletion of information directly identifying individual ministers as well as passages discussing “the more sensitive areas of policy” and the legal

The Attorney General’s written ministerial statement is here. The Information Commissioner’s response and decision notices relating to this case are here.

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