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Latest developments on Freedom of Information in Britain

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:51 pm on 25 May, 2007.
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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Latest developments regarding Britain’s Freedom of Information Act:

  • Alistair Darling, a government minister, has expressed concerns about the use of the Freedom of Information Act to obtain civil servants’ advice to ministers and MPs’ correspondence with Ministers, suggesting he wants tighter restrictions on the FoIA over such communications. In his leaked letter to Lord Falconer he writes:

    First there is the position of MPs’ correspondence under the Act. Disclosure of letters between MPs and Ministers, even if ostensibly innocuous, will inhibit the dialogue between MPs and their constituents and MPs and Ministers. It can’t be right that a constituent’s affairs could be made public because he asked his MP to write to a Minister. And if we are to live under the constant threat of publication, this will prevent MPs from expressing their views frankly when writing to a Minister. We need urgent advice on what the position is.

    Second, I am concerned that the FOI Act, as it appears, prevents us from protecting robustly and across the board advice from officials to Ministers. Here again we should be able to guard more effectively against the incremental harm to the policy development process that must inevitably arise from the disclosure of individually innocuous submissions.

    He concludes:

    For immediate purposes, I would ask that officials, led by yours, conduct a speedy review of these aspects of the FOI.

    On MPs’ correspondence and advice to Ministers, we need to examine whether a more robust approach is possible to applying FOI exemptions and the scope for a more generic approach to guard against incremental harm from individual disclosures.

    On coordination between Departments, it would be helpful if officials could examine interdepartmental arrangements for handling FOI requests, taking in the role of the Clearing House, to ensure a consistent and rigorous approach to cross cutting requests. I expect this would entail clear instructions across Whitehall from your Department.

    Beyond that, we will need to watch Information Tribunal case law carefully and in due course consider whether change to the legislation is needed to redress an apparent imbalance between the “right to know” and the protection of private space where necessary for good governance.

  • There are reports that Lord Trefgarne may have decided to sponsor David Maclean’s Freedom from Scrutiny Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill in the Lord. Without a sponsor the bill will fall. From the Press Gazette:

    Critics of a backbench bid to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act today vowed to do everything possible to stop it becoming law amid confusion over whether it has found a Tory backer in the Lords.

    The Liberal Democrats said Lord Trefgarne had agreed to sponsor David Maclean’s Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill - a claim later confirmed by Government sources.

    Maclean, the Tory former chief whip, refused to confirm the reports but said: “He is one of a few people I am talking to about it. There is no rush.”

    Meanwhile, a Conservative Party spokeswoman insisted a sponsor had not yet been secured in the Lords.

  • Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner has stated he hadn’t received any complaints about MPs’ correspondence with their constituents being released, undermining the case being made for the bill by its proponents. From the Independent:

    Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, said he had not received any complaints from members of the public that their correspondence with an MP had been wrongly disclosed under the terms of the two-year-old legislation.

    Note that the legislation is actually 7 years old, but has only been in operation since 1st January 2005.

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