UK Commission Poses Six Questions, Seeks Comment

14 October 2015

A British government commission has called for “evidence” regarding potential changes to the Freedom of Information Act.

With six questions, the five-member commission has confirmed two major areas of interest:

— how to protect the internal deliberations of public bodies and

— the cost of handling FOI requests.

The announcement summarizes the issues, including a long description of how various other FOI laws handle the deliberative process, a discussion of UK law and a listing of policy options.

The commission requested reactions by midnight, Nov. 20.

“Sweeping restrictions to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act are being considered by the body set up to consider the legislation,” according to a statement from the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

The commission provoked media scorn when it briefed reporters on its work but insisted that no names be used. Later, Terry Burns, the chair of the Commission, identified himself on Twitter as the source.

Despite the commission’s pledge to be “entirely impartial and objective,” its composition is widely seen as biased toward tightening the FOI law and raising fees. The Guardian summarized:

The five-member committee includes: Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary, who is already on the record calling for the act to be rewritten; Lord Carlile of Berriew, who accused the Guardian of “a criminal act” when it published stories using National Security Agency material leaked by Edward Snowden; Lord Howard, whose gardening expenses were criticised after being exposed following FoI requests; and Dame Patricia Hodgson, the deputy chair of Ofcom, which has criticised the act for its “chilling effect” on government.

See coverage in The Guardian and The Independent. Also see commentary by bloggers David Higgerson, Paul Gibbons,     Researching Reform, Ben Worthy and Matt Burgess.

Six Questions

The announcement poses six questions:

Question 1: What protection should there be for information relating to the internal deliberations of public bodies? For how long after a decision does such information remain sensitive? Should different protections apply to different kinds of information that are currently protected by sections 35 and 36?

Question 2: What protection should there be for information which relates to the process of collective Cabinet discussion and agreement? Is this information entitled to the same or greater protection than that afforded to other internal deliberative information? For how long should such material be protected?

Question 3: What protection should there be for information which involves candid assessment of risks? For how long does such information remain sensitive?

Question 4: Should the executive have a veto (subject to judicial review) over the release of information? If so, how should this operate and what safeguards are required? If not, what implications does this have for the rest of the Act, and how could government protect sensitive information from disclosure instead?

Question 5: What is the appropriate enforcement and appeal system for freedom of information requests?

Question 6: Is the burden imposed on public authorities under the Act justified by the public interest in the public’s right to know? Or are controls needed to reduce the burden of FoI on public authorities? If controls are justified, should these be targeted at the kinds of requests which impose a disproportionate burden on public authorities? Which kinds of requests do impose a disproportionate burden?

The Commission’s review is expected to report before the end of the year.

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