Gordon Brown once said that Freedom of Information can be ‘embarrassing’ for government. Many politicians would agree. But recently Nick Clegg took a different view and announced his intention to put the UK ahead of FOI regimes across the world.
He committed the government to extend the UK Freedom of Information Act to a range of new organisations not currently covered by the Act, make the Information Commissioner more autonomous, and reduce the time limit certain archived documents from 30 to 20 years.
The new bodies could include the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), academy school trusts and the Financial Ombudsman Service. FOI could also cover the Local Government Association, the Advertising Standards Authority, Network Rail and even utility companies, though the latter two may be subject to other disclosure rules. http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/opensecrets/
So what’s new? Not all of it, as Maurice Frankel has already pointed out. Some of these organisations are actually in the process of being covered by FOI anyway. The Association of Chief Police Officers, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) and the Financial Ombudsman Service are subject to FOI as a result of decisions made by the Brown government. Some of the others are based on Lib-dem or Conservative manifesto commitments.
The reduction of the time limit on the Thirty Year Rule also originated with the Brown government and increasing the ICO’s independence has been a suggestion of select committees and successive commissioners since at least 2006.
Nor is this the first time the UK government has thought about covering new bodies. The Brown government did consult on extending the Act to include ‘essential services’ (such as utilities), contractors and charities. After a long delay, it was decided to cautiously extend it to only a limited number of bodies, some of which made their way, rather mischievously, on to Clegg’s list.
Yet it isn’t all new wine in old bottles. The principle of extending FOI would also make an interesting precedent. Only South Africa’s Promotion of Access to Information Act 2000 has covered private bodies, though if or how it works isn’t clear. The Indian Right to Information Act also extends to previously public utility bodies now in private hands, though this was due to a ruling by its appeal body rather than by government action.
So what next? Scotland may yet pip the UK to the post in the race to extend. Scotland, covered by a separate Act, has just closed the second round of consultation on extending FOI north of the border, and their wish list includes contractors and providers of leisure services working for a public authority. http://www.scotland.gov.uk/About/FOI/Coverage
The UK and Scottish experience helps show why so few governments have taken the plunge. Many governments become lukewarm about FOI and lose their zeal for transparency, though both Obama and Cameron appear to have kept it. Extension can be a time consuming business, requiring a great deal of consultation and consideration. Many people will have many competing ideas as to who should and should not be covered and it will also involve, we can presume, some ‘free and frank’ discussion with some of the bodies on Clegg’s list.
Finally, as submissions to consultations in the UK and Scotland show, the arguments against extending FOI can be persuasive ones, particularly in tough economic times. Last time businesses argued neatly that they couldn’t afford it and don’t need to, claiming ‘it’s too expensive’ and ‘it’s unnecessary as we publish most of this already’. Can Clegg can do better than the previous government in overcoming these arguments? It may all hinge upon how long his transparency zeal lasts.