Good News on Freedom of Information

When the UK government announced a Commission to review how the Freedom of Information process was working, there was consternation amongst many. It looked like the objective might be to make it a less useful tool for those who want to find out what is going on in matters related to the working of government and public institutions.

A couple of people appointed to the Commission were known to feel that FOI was too much of a burden for organisations, and even at times hindered smooth working of the public sector. But this week the Commission published its report, and it was generally good news.There were some generally sensible recommendations, but very little that could be seen as making it harder for the public or the media to make use of FOI.

As the BBC reported:

The commission said FoI had "enhanced openness and transparency" and concluded that "there is no evidence that the act needs to be radically altered, or that the right of access to information needs to be restricted".

It added: "In some areas, the commission is persuaded that the right of access should be increased." However, it said parts of the act were unclear and it made recommendations to improve "clarity and certainty".

Matt Hancock, the Cabinet Office Minister, ruled out any major legislative changes to FOI. "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 pay-off."

This is very good news . At Spend Matters, we are delighted that Freedom of Information has not been watered down, although we might not have argued if there had been some sanctions against frivolous questions which do get asked (not by us) - the cost of Christmas Trees in government departments is one that comes to mind. But it has been useful for us at times, to get information that led to stories which  certainly were in the public interest; such as our exposé of the MOD paying ridiculous fees to Alix Partners for consulting services. In some cases, like that one, we felt the civil servants we dealt with were not only helpful, but were probably pleased that the information was coming into the public domain!

I also have a personal reason to be happy that the Commission has gone in this direction. Its chair, Sir Terry Burns, is the most famous "old boy" of my not particularly distinguished grammar turned comprehensive school near Sunderland. It would be a shame, I felt, if his fine career in academia, public and private sector roles was tarnished by remembered principally as "the man who killed FOI". Instead, he has presided over what looks at first sight like a very thoughtful piece of work.

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