UK FOI Commission Deluged With 30K Public Comments

25 November 2015

The United Kingdom commission looking into proposals to weaken the freedom of information law has received 30,000 public comments, prompting it to extend its projected conclusion date until early next year.

One observer calculated that it would take one person 208 24-hour days to read the submissions.

The chairman of the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information announced that the Commission will invite some parties to provide oral evidence on Jan. 20 and 25, 2016. “Our intention is to report as soon as possible after these sessions,” wrote Terry Burns, the chairman of the commission.

The five-member commission named in July called in October for “evidence” regarding potential changes to the FOI law. With six questions, the government-appointed panel indicated two major areas of interest: how to protect the internal deliberations of public bodies and the cost of handling FOI requests. (See previous report.)

“Given the large volume of evidence that we have received, it will take time to read and consider all of the submissions,” Burns said, delaying the commission’s report from the earlier projection of year’s end.

Jon Baines of Information Rights and Wrongs roughly calculated the size of reading task facing the commissioners. The submissions have not yet been posted on the commission website. The Commission has indicated that submissions will be made public.

Negative Comments From ICO

The UK Office of the Information Commissioner basically said no changes are justified in its submission. The detailed comment concluded:

FOIA can rightly challenge and pose awkward questions to public authorities. That is part of democracy. However, checks and balances are needed to ensure that the challenges are proportionate when viewed against all the other vital things a public authority has to do. The Commissioner believes that the current checks and balances in the legislation are sufficient to achieve this outcome.

Over 100 civil society organizations, signed the UK Open Government Network’s evidence to the FOI Commission. The submission says “it is not in the interests of the public or good government for policy deliberations to have absolute exemption from FOI.” The CSOs also wrote, “The ministerial veto should not be extended to allow the executive to overrule decisions by the courts.” In particular, the submission says, “A blanket exemption for risk assessments is unlikely to increase candour in such documents.” Arguing that the cost of FOI are “minor in comparison to other comparable government expenditure” and that numerous case studies demonstrate the value of that FOI, the groups contend that charges for making FOI requests “would be a significant threat to the openness and transparency of the UK.”

Ben Worthy, a University of London academic who blogs on OpenDataStudy addressed whether the law fails to adequately protect government deliberations, leading officials to hold back. “Given the uncertainty of evidence around any ‘chilling’, these parts of the Act should, by default, remain as they are,” he wrote. “The alternative would be to reach for an over restrictive change that could leave out any possibility of access.”

Helen Darbishire, Executive Director of Access Info Europe, said in a press release, “It is absurd that at home the UK government seems keen to limit decision-making transparency while espousing the benefits of co-creation of policies in fora such as the Open Government Partnership.” The protection of internal deliberations only in the presence of a demonstrable harm, unless there is an overriding public interest in the information’s release, the group said. Charging for FOI requests is out of line with international standards the group said.

The UK nongovernmental organization MySociety, the creator of FOI request sites, stressed in its comments, “Evidence shows that fees will deter people from seeking information.” The group urged more proactive disclosure of information.

Blogger Claire Miller said her comments “can roughly be summed up as, the law is mostly fine (have you even read it?), the Supreme Court ruling on ministerial veto was sensible (seriously, try reading it), and the burden is mostly self inflicted (try being more efficient instead of whinging).” She concluded, “I believe that the changes put forward in the consultation document are unnecessary and that more focus should be on better sharing guidance and best practice so that both requesters and public bodies can use the act in the most efficient way possible.”

Making predictions about the outcome, blogger Ibrahim Hasan, wrote, “Strengthening the ministerial veto under section 53 is a “dead cert” (in betting parlance).” He further opined, “It is also very likely that the FOI Fees Regulations will be amended to make it easier to refuse requests for information on costs grounds.”

See Financial Times overview article of Nov. 18, just before the deadline for submissions.

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