Cheshire East

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FOI under attack

Last week, a government minister called the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) a “truly malign piece of legislation”. Ibrahim Hasan looks at what the comments tell us.

Lord Callanan, a minister at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, made the comments during a parliamentary debate. He was defending the government’s decision that FOI should not apply to a new Defence research agency

It is not surprising that a government minister has expressed his dislike of FOI. The Act is very popular amongst politicians but only when they are in opposition. This view rapidly changes when they take up government positions and are on the receiving end of FOI requests. Tony Blair introduced the Act but regretted it in his memoirs, calling himself “a naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop”.

This new attack on FOI is not just about the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) and whether it should be subject to FOI. This is a minister expressing his frustrations about legislation which has no doubt made the Government’s life more difficult especially during the pandemic. Information requests have been made about key government decisions, the actions of advisers in allegedly breaking lockdown rules (Barnard Castle) and the award of lucrative PPE supplies contracts to companies who seemingly have little experience of the health sector. In July, the Information Commissioner launched an investigation into reports that ministers and senior officials have been using private correspondence channels, such as Whatsapp and private email accounts, to conduct sensitive official business. 

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FOI allows the public to see how their money is being spent. It is extraordinary that a body like ARIA, which is responsible for spending £800m of public funds over four years, should be free from the scrutiny that applies to the whole public sector including small parish councils. ARIA will be tasked with handing out lucrative research contracts and so the public have a right to know how their money will be spent.

Fees

Lord Callanan also said that charging the public fees for requesting government information was an “excellent idea”. This idea has also been backed by the incoming Information Commissioner, John Edwards. He told a committee of MPs in September that it was “legitimate” to ask the public to meet the cost of digging out the relevant information.

One of the governments arguments for introducing fees is that it costs money to deal with complex freedom of information request. However the current legislation already allows for fees to be charged if a request takes more than 18 hours to deal with or 24 hours if made to a government department. 

Introducing a flat fee or fees for all requests, will undermine the public’s trust in government. At a time when the economy is weak and the cost of living is going up, why should the public have to pay for information that has been gathered by public bodies using public funds? In a sense they would be asked to pay for it twice. Fees also mean that only the rich would be able to scrutinise and challenge decisions made by public bodies which affect their lives. 

It could be that Lord Callanan’s comments signal the start of a government attempt to weaken FOI. If this is the case, bearing in mind Boris Johnson’s parliamentary majority, we should all be concerned. The Government must lead by example and not weaken FOI because it is a hindrance.

Ibrahim Hasan is a solicitor and director of Act Now Training

Watch Ibrahim’s interview with RT News here.

Looking for an FOI qualification? Act Now has one place left on its online FOI Practitioner Certificate course starting in January.

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