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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

New FOI commission heralds “crackdown on the right to know”

A major attack on the public’s right to information is likely following the Government’s announcement of a new Commission to review the Freedom of Information Act, according to the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

The Commission has been asked to consider whether new measures are needed to protect the Government’s internal discussions from disclosure and to reduce the “burden” of the FOI Act.

Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, Maurice Frankel 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.”

He added: “The Commissioner and Tribunal give substantial weight to the need to protect ongoing 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.”

FOI “working well”

Frankel pointed out that the Freedom of Information Act had been fully examined only 3 years ago, by the Justice Select Committee in its post-legislative scrutiny of the Act. The committee reported in 2012 that FOI had proved “a significant enhancement of our democracy”, and that the Act was “working well”.

The report had concluded: “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.”