On 1 March, to some surprise, the Burns Commission concluded that the Freedom of Information Act was ‘generally working well’. Ben Worthy and Robert Hazell explain how the Commission came to this unexpected result and, drawing on the results three major research projects, argue that since it came into force in 2005 FOI has achieved its primary objectives of making British government more accountable and transparent.
Freedom of information was in the news again when the Independent Commission, chaired by Lord (Terry) Burns, delivered its report on 1 March. To some surprise, the Commission concluded the Act was ‘generally working well’, and there was ‘no evidence that the Act needs to be radically altered’. This was not the expectation when the Commission was established last summer, with a membership of Lord Burns, Lord (Alex) Carlile, Dame Patricia Hodgson, Lord (Michael) Howard, and Jack Straw. Their terms of reference invited them to consider whether there was a need for sensitive information to have robust protection; whether the Act adequately recognised the need for a ‘safe space’ for policy development; and whether change was needed to moderate the burden on public authorities. All that suggested a report that was likely to restrict FOI in various ways, but that is not what has happened. Why has the Commission come to this unexpected result?
The answer lies mainly in the evidence they received. The Commission received over 30,000 written responses, with 29,334 coming via the 38 Degrees campaign website. The media and civil society organisations like the Campaign for Freedom of Information were strongly supportive of the Act, and it was left to a few local authorities, police authorities and NHS Trusts to explain the burdens they felt it imposed. No central government departments submitted evidence, so if the government had wanted to restrict FOI, its case went by default.