The Justice Committee today published its report following its post legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act. It concluded:
The Freedom of Information Act has been a significant enhancement of our democracy. Overall our witnesses agreed the Act was working well. The Freedom of Information Act has achieved its three principal objectives, but its secondary objective of enhancing public confidence in Government has not been achieved, and was unlikely to be achieved.
It should be emphasised that the right to access public sector information is an important constitutional right, a fact that can get lost in complaints about the operation of the freedom of information regime. 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.
Some of the key findings were that
- The Freedom of Information Act has made government more transparent and more accountable.
- The Act’s impact on decision-making is unclear, though the committee felt it may have had more of an impact than we felt it did.
- The Act’s impact on trust is also nuanced (perhaps more nuanced,in my opinion, than the MOJ memorandum claimed).
- Publication schemes have been overtaken by technology, though it is too early to tell what impact reforms such as Open Data have had.
The Committee looked into some of the controversies around FOI.
- It concluded that evidence for a chilling effect is far from clear cut. The concerns of senior minister and officials may indicate there is a problem though, as the Committee pointed out, much of their evidence fitted particular circumstances, was hypothetical or was anecdotal-see Blair’s letter here. It did not recommend any changes in this area but sought to reassure that the Act itself, combined with use of the veto, should protect the required ‘safe space’ for discussion. See here for my reasons as to why I am sceptical about this chilling.
- Despite a seemingly growing pressure for some form of application fee, the committee rejected this as too difficult to operate. It also outlined how difficult it was to calculate the cost of FOI.
- A final interesting and controversial proposal was the recommendation that universities be given a protection similar to that under the Scottish FOI that specifically protects research information. Interviewees we spoke to in our short study were divided over whether such an exemption would work or was necessary (see the UUK evidence and FOI man’s response).
The Committee made a number of recommendations: that the period of internal review have a 20 day limit, the ‘vexatious’ safeguards in the Act be better used and that requesters be told how much their question cost to process.
The most significant part of the report was what is did not do. There has been high profile criticism of FOI, from Tony Blair to David Cameron that worried the Information Commissioner. This had led to discussion of additional protections for discussion, the introduction of fees and other changes. The committee criticised Tony Blair for not appearing.
The report also quoted Francis Maude, who addressed concerns about ‘abuse’ by the press which may be driving some of these criticisms. Maude said: ‘Can [openness] lead to embarrassment? Yes. Do we have to be a bit grown up about that? Yes, we do’.