Simon Hughes spells out his pre-election FOI plans

Simon Hughes Image copyright Getty Images

Should it be a state secret how often cabinet committees meet?

"I wouldn't have thought so," says Simon Hughes, the coalition minister responsible for freedom of information policy.

But it's perhaps just another issue where he's not in line with all his government colleagues.

"Cabinet committees are known, membership of cabinet committees and sub-committees is known, and the fact they have met is clearly often known," he argues. "There are some that never meet or barely ever meet."

In contrast, however, the Cabinet Office has spent more than two years fighting a BBC FOI request asking how many times the Reducing Regulation sub-committee has met. This was set up in 2010 to oversee the scrapping of unnecessary bureaucratic "red tape".

Earlier this month the Upper Tribunal heard the latest stage in this long-running battle, the Cabinet Office's appeal against a Lower Tribunal ruling last year that releasing this fact would be in the public interest. The Upper Tribunal has yet to announce its decision.

"Transparent"

Mr Hughes wasn't aware of this case when I interviewed him and posed the general question. After I explained it, he added:

"I've given you my instinct, it shouldn't be a problem. Clearly the Cabinet Office have some concerns, which is why they are batting it away. I would hope that we can arrive at a transparent place on that."

Simon Hughes has been the Liberal Democrat junior minister in the Ministry of Justice for nine months, having joined the government last December when he replaced Lord McNally.

He explains his first priority in the FOI field was to ensure the law was extended to Network Rail, and now he is moving on to the next items in his agenda.

Retrospective

His remarks follow the government announcement earlier this month that Network Rail, which runs Britain's rail infrastructure and has been re-classified as a public sector body, will be brought under FOI. This has been a pending issue for several years. Mr Hughes says there were concerns "further up the scale" within government, including inside 10 Downing Street, but they were overcome.

Applying FOI to Network Rail will require new regulations. Mr Hughes is determined that the change will take effect before April 2015 and - importantly - that it will be retrospective. In other words, it will be possible to make FOI requests for past information which pre-dates these regulations but is still held by Network Rail. This would be in line with other bodies subject to FOI.

This is despite murmurings among some officials that the government as a whole may not agree that FOI should retrospectively affect the company. However, a spokesman for Network Rail itself says: "We're entirely comfortable with retrospective application of FOI."

Mr Hughes states he is planning three further steps on FOI before the May 2015 general election.

The first is pressing ahead with plans to extend FOI to cover several other regulatory and complaints handling bodies, such as the Housing Ombudsman, the Advertising Standards Authority, the Panel on Takeover and Mergers, and the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

He says he hopes this move will not be controversial. It will be a limited group compared with the much longer list of bodies the government previously indicated in 2011 as under consideration for broadening the reach of FOI.

Far-reaching

The second is issuing an updated government code of practice which gives guidance on how public authorities should implement FOI. This would contain stricter advice, promised by the MoJ in 2012, on the amount of time taken for assessing if releasing information is in the public interest and also for reviews of FOI decisions.

The third step is a more far-reaching consultation exercise, which will cover both wider principles of potential FOI coverage and administrative processes for its current operation.

Mr Hughes would like to increase the scrutiny of those private companies which have "effective monopolies" providing certain public services, such as National Grid, water supply companies and, in some places, housing associations.

"The FOI process would be hugely helpful to lots of people who want to know how water companies regulate their affairs," he says.

Implementing any such measures would require legislation that would not be feasible within this parliament before the May 2015 election.

But Mr Hughes wants the consultation to happen before then "so that we have heard the support, we have heard the objections, and we have everything teed up for whoever is in the right place after May to be able to go forwards".

His aspirations also extend to some large corporations which are not monopolistic in this way, notably the Big 6 energy firms. However he says that for most private companies that provide public services, he wants to use the advisory code of practice rather than legislation to encourage transparency.

Pressure

The consultation document will also deal with potential amendments to FOI regulations about what costs public authorities can take into account when deciding if enquiries are too expensive to answer.

This follows pressure from some public authorities who have complained about the "administrative burden" of FOI and want greater scope to reject requests.

"There are perfectly reasonable concerns out there that it can be burdensome if you have a huge amount of redacting to do," says Mr Hughes. "If public authorities are helpful, and there are practical things we can do to respond to practical concerns, we will do that."

But he says a final decision has yet to be made on what possible proposals to consult about. "We've seen the bids to consider them, but clearly we need to get the message correct, which is that we're extending freedom of information, not restricting it."

He maintains he sees no need to alter the current provisions on when requests can be dismissed as "vexatious", which he regards as sufficient.

"Spirit of FOI"

He reveals that it was put to him by departmental officials that there should be two separate consultation exercises - one about possible extensions, the other on the processes - but that he has insisted on consulting on everything at the same time.

"We've got to be seen to be continuing with the spirit of FOI and not amending the processes other than where there are very practical changes that might need to be made."

Mr Hughes maintains that his views on FOI haven't altered since he became a minister and thus found himself on the receiving end of requests.

"My attitude hasn't changed, but I'm conscious of the workload," he says.

He admits that the Ministry needs to improve its own record on processing FOI applications. According to the latest available quarterly statistics, the MoJ does badly on responding to FOI requests within the time limits compared to most other government departments.

"We are still trying to do better. We are not as good as we should be at turning round requests, and it is a subject I have raised specifically in the ministerial team."

In the longer term he proclaims his aspiration to streamline and speed up the processes for both freedom of information and data protection.

"All these things have to be seen from the point of view of the citizen. I haven't changed my view being a minister. Our job is to the make the response of the public service to the citizen better and more open."

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