UK Minister Says Changes Being Considered in FOI Law

25 June 2015

The United Kingdom’s Justice Secretary has suggested amending the freedom of information law to let government officials “speak candidly.”

His statement triggered objections from FOI supporters. No specific proposals have been tabled.

Gove said during question period in Parliament June 23:

 …we do need to revisit the Freedom of Information Act. It is absolutely vital that we ensure that the advice that civil servants give to Ministers of whatever Government is protected so that civil servants can speak candidly and offer advice in order to ensure that Ministers do not make mistakes. There has been a worrying tendency in our courts and elsewhere to erode the protections for that safe space for policy advice, and I think it absolutely needs to be asserted.

The Financial Times, which broke the story, described the plans in rather general terms:

Michael Gove, the justice secretary, is considering making it more difficult to procure information from government bodies, including allowing officials to count “thinking time” when calculating how much it costs to retrieve information.

One plan is to make it easier for ministers to veto publication of certain documents, as they tried unsuccessfully to do with the recent release of letters written by Prince Charles to Labour ministers during the past decade.

Another is to change the way the cost of finding information is calculated so that officials can more readily turn down requests.

The Conservative government’s plans were criticized by the Campaign for Freedom of Information and others.

The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said:

The Information Commissioner and Tribunal already take steps to ensure that advice is protected where disclosure would harm the public interest. But it does not adopt a blanket approach. Mr Gove should know this: earlier this year the Tribunal ruled that the advice he had received as Education Secretary before cancelling Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme should not be disclosed. Releasing it would expose the working relationship between ministers and officials and undermine the future provision of frank advice, it said. But in other cases it has ordered disclosure, particularly where the advice is anodyne or old or the arguments for confidentiality are implausible.

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