Lord Bridges, the Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office, has laid a written statement before Parliament detailing the new Commission formed to evaluate the present Freedom of Information Act 2000. A cross-party Commission has been established by the Conservative Government that will now look into the Freedom of Information Act in some detail and examine its fitness for purpose 14 years on from enactment.
The new Conservative administration is determined to be the “most transparent Government” in the world and, in order to realise that objective, is opening up Government to citizens by making it easier for them to access information and increase the volume of data that’s available – with a record 20,000 datasets now held on data.gov.uk – while at the same time protecting a private space for frank advice.
In addition, the next Open Government National Action Plan will develop an offer on transparency that further strengthens the Conservative Party’s commitment to an open style of Government.
“Our aim is to be as open as possible on the substance,” explained Lord Bridges, “which is consistent with ensuring that a private space is protected for frank advice. To this end, as a Government we must maintain the best possible environment for policy makers to think freely and offer frank advice to decision-makers. The most effective system is when policy makers can freely give that advice while, for their part, citizens may shine a light into Government.”
The new Conservative Government “fully supports” the Freedom of Information Act but, after more than a decade in operation for this Act, believes it’s now time that process and procedure is reviewed to make sure the legislation is working effectively. That being so, Prime Minister David Cameron has established an independent, cross-party Commission on Freedom of Information.
Constituents and Terms of Reference of the new Commission
The Commission will be chaired by Lord Burns and comprise the Rt Hon Jack Straw, Lord Howard of Lympne, Lord Carlile of Berriew (President of The Security Institute and the former Independent Reviewer of Counter-Terrorism Legislation) and Dame Patricia Hodgson as its constituent members.
The Commission will report to the Minister for the Cabinet Office and publish its findings by the end of November.
The Prime Minister has also confirmed that responsibility for Freedom of Information policy has now transferred from the Ministry of Justice to the Cabinet Office. This change was effected from Friday 17 July 2015.
The new Commission’s Terms of Reference are as follows: ‘The Commission will review the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (‘the Act’) to consider whether there is an appropriate public interest balance between transparency, accountability and the need for sensitive information to have robust protection, and whether the operation of the Act adequately recognises the need for a ‘safe space’ for policy development and implementation and frank advice. The Commission may also consider the balance between the need to maintain public access to information and the burden of the Act on public authorities, and whether change is needed to moderate that while maintaining public access to information.’
In response to this news, Information Commissioner Christopher Graham stated: “We will be happy to share with the Commission our experiences from a decade of regulating this Act. As we’ve said in the past, the Freedom of Information Act has opened up the corridors of power to greater scrutiny. Government at all levels is the better for it. The Act is not without its critics, it must be said, but in providing a largely free and universal right of access to information, subject to legitimate exceptions, we believe the present Freedom of Information regime is indeed fit for purpose.”