Belfast Telegraph

FoI is safe for now, but don't crack open the bubbly just yet

By Paul Connolly

This was described as a good week for transparency campaigners, with the Government not yielding to pressure for major reforms to the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act.

Ministers said the Act was "working well" and campaigners said they were largely happy with the outcome of the review compared to what might have happened.

Alas, I fear their joy will be short-lived because the Government has retained one key power that, inappropriately exercised, could be used to block embarrassing revelations. But first the good news. Last year Westminster ordered a review of FoI after a series of complaints from civil servants, politicians, council bosses and others who said they were buckling under the strain of requests for information.

The more cynical said what they were buckling under was the information released by FoI requests.

A head of political steam had built up for some years since the introduction of the Act in 2000.

Rather notoriously, Tony Blair, who brought in the Act in those heady days of the first New Labour administration, claimed that it was the worst legislation he had introduced.

The groundswell led to a push to bring in a raft of changes. A Government review commission consultation paper subsequently indicated it might bring forward the following changes:

• Fees for FoI requests.

• Making it easier to refuse requests on cost grounds.

• Making it more difficult to obtain public authorities' internal discussions, or exclude some altogether.

• Strengthening ministers' powers to veto disclosures.

• Changing the way the Act was enforced.

Thankfully, most of these have been soundly seen off by a range of campaigners, including the Society of Editors (of which I'm a board member).

The Act will now not be changed and, indeed, in some respects FoI's hand has been strengthened.

Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock said: "We will not make any legal changes to FoI. We will spread transparency throughout public services, making sure all public bodies routinely publish details of senior pay and perks. After all, taxpayers should know if their money is funding a company car or a big payoff." Precisely.

The report also said no fees would be introduced and that a public interest time limit extension should be capped at 20 days to tackle delays in responding to requests.

The report also suggests the Act should be extended to those who are providing public services under contract, and that universities and higher education institutions should come under the Act.

This is good news for Northern Ireland.

Some departments here are slack in observing their FoI requirements.

The First and Deputy First Ministers Office is, frankly, shameless in the way it ignores certain FoI requests.

The downside, however, is a recommendation to beef up ministers' ability to veto FoI requests and remove all avenues of appeal, apart from an (expensive) judicial review.

The concern is that we will end up with a two-tier system, in which governments can quash FoI requests that embarrass them while espousing openness generally.

The trick will be in how it is used - properly or politically.

Time will tell.

Belfast Telegraph


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