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Justice Committee Report On The Freedom Of Information Act

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					             Justice Committee Report On The Freedom Of Information Act


The Parliamentary Yearbook reported on the introduction of the Freedom of
Information Act at its introduction in 2002 and has been monitoring the effectiveness
of the legislation for a feature in the next edition of the book

The Freedom of Information Act is generally working well and its scope should not be
diminished, although some concerns raised about its operation need to be addressed,
according to MPs on the Justice Select Committee who have scrutinised the effectiveness of
the legislation and produced a report today.

The Freedom of Information Act implemented what was a manifesto commitment of the
Labour Party in the 1997 General Election. Before its introduction, there had been no right of
access to government by the general public, merely a limited voluntary framework for
sharing information.

The act was preceded by a 1998 white paper, entitled "Your Right to Know" by Dr David
Clark. The white paper was met with widespread enthusiasm and was described at the time
as being "almost too good to be true." by one advocate of freedom of information legislation.
The final act was substantially more limited in scope than the initial white paper.

Following the white paper and the publication od a draft bill in May 1999, the act was
extensively debated in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, receiving royal
assent in November 2000.

The Freedom of Information Act creates a statutory right for access to information in relation
to bodies that exercise functions of a public nature, three different kinds of bodies are
covered under the act ... public authorities, publicly owned companies and designated
bodies performing public functions. Around 120,000 requests are made each year. Private
citizens made 60% of them, with businesses and journalists accounting for 20% and 10%
respectively.

Today, with publication of the report, Sir Alan Beith MP, Chairman of the Justice Committee,
said:

"The Freedom of Information Act has enhanced the UK’s democratic system and made our
public bodies more open, accountable and transparent. It has been a success and we do not
wish to diminish its intended scope, or its effectiveness. The Act was never intended to
prevent, limit, or stop the recording of policy discussions in Cabinet or at the highest levels of
Government, and we believe that its existing provisions, properly used, are sufficient to
maintain the ‘safe space’ for such discussions. These provisions need to be more widely
understood within the public service. They include, where appropriate, the use of the
ministerial veto."

Policy formulation, safe spaces and the chilling effect
Some former Ministers and senior civil servants gave evidence to the inquiry arguing that
FOI is having a ‘chilling effect’ on policy discussion at the heart of government. The ability for
officials to provide frank advice to Ministers, the opportunity for Ministers and officials to
discuss policy honestly and comprehensively, the requirement for full and accurate records
to be kept and the convention of collective Cabinet responsibility, might all be threatened if
an FOI regime allowed premature or inappropriate disclosure of information.

The Committee looked at the very limited evidence available, recognised there could be a
problem--at least of perception at the highest levels of policy formulation, but believed that
the existing provisions of the Act could be used more effectively to give assurance that there
was no need for high-level policy discussions, and the recording of such discussions, to be
inhibited by the Act.
The MPs have, however, reiterated that it was the clear intention of Parliament when
passing the legislation to allow a “safe space” for policy discussions and called for guidance
to be issued to civil servants about the protections in the Act. The MPs accepted that it could
be appropriate to use the ministerial veto to ensure a “safe space” for high-level policy
discussions.

The MPs were concerned that, despite making public criticisms of the legislation introduced
while he was Prime Minister, Tony Blair failed to give evidence to the inquiry. Sir Alan Beith
MP, said:

"Former Prime Minister Tony Blair described himself as a ‘nincompoop’ for his role in the
legislation, saying that it was ‘antithetical to sensible government’. Yet when we sought to
question Mr Blair on his change of opinion he refused to defend his views before us and
submitted answers to our written questions only after our Report was agreed, and after a
press report had appeared, suggesting we might criticise his failure to give evidence. We
deplore Mr Blair’s failure to co-operate with a Committee of the House, despite being given
every opportunity to attend at a time convenient to him."

Cost and Fees
The number of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests is growing as awareness of the
legislation increases and some evidence to the inquiry raised concerns. Some witnesses
suggested introducing fees for FOI requests in order to recover some costs. However, the
report concludes that while FOI imposes costs, it also creates savings when the
inappropriate use of public funds is uncovered – or where fear of disclosure prevents the
waste of public money. The MPs acknowledge the economic argument in favour of the
freedom of information regime being more self-funding. Nevertheless, the Committee
concludes that setting fees at a level high enough to recoup costs would deter requests with
a strong public interest and therefore defeat the purposes of the Act. Fees introduced purely
for commercial and media organisations could also be circumvented, MPs believe. Sir Alan
Beith MP, added:

"Evidence we have seen suggests that reducing the cost of FoI can be achieved if the way
public authorities deal with requests is well-thought through.

Complaints about the cost of FoI will ring hollow when made by public authorities which have
failed to invest the time and effort needed to create an efficient freedom of information
scheme."

The MPs made a number of further recommendations to improve FOI:
 Higher fines should be imposed for destruction of information or data and the time limit
   should be removed on prosecution of these offences.
 The law should be amended to protect universities from having to disclose research and
   data before the research has been published.
 All public bodies subject to the Act should be required to publish data on the timeliness
   of their response to freedom of information requests.
 The right to access information must not be undermined by the increased use of private
   providers in delivering public services and contracts for private providers should be
   explicit and enforceable in stipulating FOI obligations.
 Where public authorities publish disclosure logs, the names of those requesting
   information should be included.

The Parliamentary Year book will continue to report on the effectiveness of the legislation as
we go through the months ahead

Web: www.parliamentaryyearbook.co.uk

				
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Description: The Parliamentary Yearbook reported on the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act at its introduction in 2002 and has been monitoring the effectiveness of the legislation for a feature in the next edition of the book