Danish Parliament Adopts Controversial FOI Changes

6 June 2013

The Danish parliament May 4 approved controversial changes to its public information law that will reduce the availability of documents prepared during the development of new policies and legislation.

The law will exempt disclosure of correspondence between ministries and the civil service if a minister is requesting advice. Ministers’ calendars also are made exempt.

Passage was ensured by the united support of the ruling parties. The bill was approved on a 99-42 vote, with 38 lawmakers absent or abstaining. 

In addition to Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s ruling center-left coalition, the bill was  supported by the opposition Conservative Party and the Liberal Party. Several opposition parties, including the right-wing Danish People’s Party and the leftist Unity List, which usually supports the government, voted against the bill. Efforts to amend the bill were defeated.

The law passed despite opposition from the media and a public petition with a more than 85,000 signatures.

Supporters said that the expanded exemption for pre-decisional materials will permit greater candor during the deliberative process. Justice Minister Morten Bødskov, told Parliament: “We are not covering up abuses of power. We are expanding openness in public institutions.”

The changes cover other aspects of the 1985 law and among other things would ease restrictions on getting documents from local authorities.

Critics argued that various past political scandals would not have been uncovered if the new law had been in effect. The expanded exemption, they say, is too broad. (See previous FreedomInfo.org reports.)

Mogens Blicher Bjerregård, the chairman of the Danish journalists’ union, told Berlingske newspaper, “The law prevents FOI requests, which are designed to ensure that that people have a thorough understanding of this country’s legislation.”

Opponents are considering a referendum to reverse the changes, but would need to get the approval of 60 MPs. Opposition parliamentarians, one whom called the bill a “blot on democracy,” promised to reverse the changes if they win control of the government.  

Sections 24 and 27 were at the heart of the debate. Section 24 says:

The right of access does not include internal documents and information exchanged at a time when there is a concrete reason to believe that a minister has or will have a need for civil service advice and assistance between:  1) A ministry department and its subordinate authorities. 2) Various ministries.

Section 27(2) excludes documents exchanged between ministers and members of parliament involving legislation.

The amendment will take effect on Jan. 1, 2014. Under the new law, the Parliamentary Ombudsman will evaluate the use of Section 24 and 27 in three years.

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