UK Commission Says Few Changes Needed in FOIA

1 March 2016

A controversial ad hoc commission in the United Kingdom has surprised critics by not recommending many changes to the freedom of information act.

The final report issued March 1 was a welcome relief to those who had charged that the commission was stacked in favor of undercutting FOI

Also welcome was a statement by the Cabinet Office minister responsible for FOI, Matt Hancock, who said the government “will not make any legal changes” to the FOI Act.

The five-person commission’s work had been focused on whether to raise fees and whether to provide greater protections for officials during the internal policy discussions, but in the end it opted against significant proposals in these areas.

Critics, who had mounted a vigorous no change campaign, with strong media support, mostly welcomed the report. The Campaign for Freedom of Information issued a statement in which director Maurice Frankel said: “The Commission has stepped back from the one sided agenda which the government initially appeared to set for it, of restricting access to internal policy discussions, introducing charges for requests and making it easier for authorities to refuse requests.”

Mixed Bag of Suggestions

The commission made a number of suggestions that FOI-suppoter saw as positive. It said information held by contractors delivering public services, whether private companies or charities, should be subject to the FOI law. In addition, the commission says time limits for responding to FOI requests should be tightened up and a statutory 20 working day limit for carrying out internal reviews introduced.

Martin Rosenbaum, the BBC’s FOI specialist, reported that “the Commission’s report has surprised many, being more sympathetic to greater openness than expected, while also backing some changes that would help public authorities to keep some material secret.” He noted that “at least one proposal it did make to restrict FOI – bolstering the legal basis for ministers’ rights to veto disclosure – has already been rejected by the government.”

The Campaign for FOI said it is “most concerned” by a proposal to change the procedures for appealing the information commissioner’s decisions. The commission’s recommendations are evaluated in the Campaign’s statement.

A review of the proposal by Ben Worthy, a lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College of the University of London, examines the recommendations and notes issue the commission did not address.

The Daily Mail reported in detail on Hancock’s comments.

 

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