Just hours after government papers were released yesterday under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) revealing that British pilots have been involved in bombing in Syria, the government launched a cross-party review of the FOI which is likely to lead an assault on public access to government information.
Matthew Hancock, the Cabinet Office minister, laid a statement before parliament outlining details about the five-person commission that will be asked to decide whether the act is too expensive overly intrusive and burdensome. Members will include Jack Straw, the former Labour foreign secretary, Lord Chancellor (and home secretary who introduced the Act) and Michael Howard, former Tory home secretary. Neither are fans of the Act and Straw is very critical over how the Act is enforced. In 2009 as Lord Chancellor he issued the first ministerial veto against an FOI request. It was about access to the legal advice on UK military action against Iraq. Other members will be Dame Patricia Hodgson and Lord Carlile of Berriew, who was the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation between 2001 and 2011.The commission will be chaired by Lord Burns, a former Treasury official, now a Crossbencher in the Lords.
Senior Tories have previously said they wanted to strengthen the ministerial veto after the Guardian’s successful ten year campaign to release Princes Charles’s ‘black spider’ letters. Earlier this year ministers lost their legal battle to stop their publication when the Supreme Court ruled that former attorney general Dominic Grieve had been wrong to apply his ministerial veto.
Maurice Frankel director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information said: “The government is clearly proposing to crack down on FOI. Ministers want certainty that policy discussions will not only take place in secret but be kept secret afterwards. They don’t like the fact that the Act requires the case for confidentiality to be weighed against the public interest in disclosure. The Commissioner and Tribunal give substantial weight to the need to protect on-going government discussions and the frankness of future exchanges. But after a decision has been announced they sometimes order disclosure where exchanges are anodyne, the material is old or the case for openness is overwhelming. If that balancing test is removed mistakes, bad decisions and policy failures caused by deliberately ignoring the evidence will be concealed for 20 years.”
The Campaign also points out that the FOI Act had been fully examined only 3 years ago, by the Justice Select Committee. The committee reported in 2012 that FOI had proved “a significant enhancement of our democracy”, that the Act was “was working well” and concluded that “We do not believe that there has been any general harmful effect at all on the ability to conduct business in the public service, and in our view the additional burdens are outweighed by the benefits.”
The Campaign’s web site is at https://www.cfoi.org.uk