Commons report praises current FOI system

Picture of someone at the national archives at Kew Image copyright Getty Images

Supporters of freedom of information will be relieved, but many of its critics will be disappointed.

That is the likely reaction to the new report by the Commons Justice Committee, which has assessed how FOI is working in practice and concludes that the UK's Freedom of Information Act "is serving the nation well".

The two controversial topics it has focused on most are the cost of FOI and its impact on the frankness of internal policy debate. In both areas the MPs on the committee are not convinced by many of the challenges from those who think the FOI system is too expensive or damaging to good government or both.

Thus, on the starkest, most high-profile issues, the committee does not recommend giving cabinet records or other policy documents any increased legal protection from FOI requests; nor does it back the introduction of up-front fees for making freedom of information applications.

But it is clear from the cautious and nuanced report - and from their lines of questioning at the committee hearings - that the MPs do have some significant worries.

The Ministry of Justice will now have to consider how to respond to the committee's review of the workings of the Act and whether to bring forward any changes.

Much of the evidence to the committee from public authorities concerned the administrative burden of FOI. While the report stresses that FOI disclosures can prompt savings as well as costing money, it suggests a number of smaller measures to address the expense issue.

Currently most public authorities can reject FOI requests where it would take them more than 18 hours to retrieve the information. The MPs propose cutting this to 16 hours. But they reject as unfeasible the more drastic option of allowing authorities also to count towards the limit the time spent thinking about whether to release material.

'Chilling effect'

It is interesting to see that the committee strongly maintains that well-run public authorities can cut the cost of FOI considerably.

As to whether FOI has in fact introduced a "chilling effect" on honest records of policy discussion, the MPs are clearly concerned and summarise the evidence on both sides while eventually remaining agnostic. However they argue that if this is the case, the solution is not to curtail FOI. Instead senior government figures should proclaim that FOI does leave a "safe space" for internal debate and use their ministerial right of veto over the Information Commissioner if necessary.

Yet there is one category of critic of the FOI system who will be pleased - university researchers. Many academics had argued that the UK-wide FOI Act should have an exemption for academic research intended for later publication, as is the case in Scotland. This is the only restriction on the scope of FOI that the committee back.

In terms of the main complaints coming from those who want greater openness, the MPs were clearly influenced by the argument that there is too much delay in the current system.

'Nincompoop'

Image copyright PA
Image caption Tony Blair has called himself a nincompoop for introducing FOI

The committee recommends that the law should lay down statutory time limits on how long public authorities can take to assess whether releasing material is in the public interest and to decide on reviews of their previous decisions. Currently the time limits are only advisory.

The report is unanimous and some of the conclusions have a balanced "on the one hand, on the other" tone which hints at compromises and some differences beneath the surface.

The MPs are clearly very cross with Tony Blair because of his failure to give evidence to them in person, despite his well-publicised self-condemnation of himself as a "nincompoop" for introducing FOI.

But for me the most striking feature of his letter to the committee is the fact that it states one purpose of the legislation was "to permit people to access information about themselves held by government".

This is simply wrong, since personal information of this kind is specifically excluded from the FOI Act and is instead covered by the Data Protection Act.

I have also heard this same inaccurate and peculiar claim made by Jonathan Powell, Blair's former chief of staff and fellow FOI critic.

I don't know what to make of this error, but since Mr Blair did not appear in front of the committee, the MPs did not have a chance to ask him about it.

Finally, as a declaration of interest, I should state that I gave evidence to the committee from a journalistic perspective for BBC News.

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