The Government have just announced a cross party Commission on Freedom of Information to review the use of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It is hard not to be cynical when governments review Freedom of Information provisions, particularly when one of the members, Jack Straw is a very vocal critic of the Act. Freedom of Information can be challenging for governments and it is not surprising that politicians across the political spectrum have been proposing restricting the Act for as long as it has been in place.
However as the detailed review carried out by the Justice Select Committee found, the Act works well and is a significant enhancement of our democracy. You can read the evidence I gave to the committee here. The particular concern raised by the government is that there needs to be a safe space for the government to discuss and debate policy without fear that the discussions will then be made public. However as the Justice Committee report states, this protection already exists in section 35 of the Act. As Sir Alan Beith said when the report was published
“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.”
A better focus for the Commission would be to examine how governance has changed since the Act was passed and where there are gaps in Freedom of Information coverage. Increasingly government functions have out sourced to private companies who are not subject to the Act. This creates several challenges in terms of how, as members of the public, we can hold service providers to account. A commission that looked at how we can meet these challenges and deepen the culture of Freedom of Information at all levels of government would be one we could get excited by.