My comments on the Government’s call for evidence on Freedom Of Information

The UK government is presently running a call for evidence on Freedom of Information. (It closes at midnight tonight, so if you want to contribute, get your skates on! Here’s a simple way to do it.)

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Here is the submission that I just sent.

Q. Why do you think Freedom of Information should be protected?

We repeatedly hear various governments claiming they are going to be “the most open government” ever. In practical terms, the Freedom of Information Act has been by far the most significant part of a fulfilling this claim.

Q. How do you think government transparency could be improved?

Private companies providing public services should most certainly be subject to FOI. In accepting public money, they place themselves in a position of trust, and with that comes responsibility to the public who they serve.

Q. What protection should there be for information relating to the internal deliberations of public bodies? For how long after a decision does such information remain sensitive?

I do not feel that any changes are required to the present rules on what kinds of information are exempt.

Q. What protection should there be for information which relates to the process of collective Cabinet discussion and agreement? Is this information entitled to the same or greater protection than that afforded to other internal deliberative information? For how long should such material be protected?

The notion of exempting Cabinet discussions from FOI is absurd. The higher the level of discussion, the more crucial that it be exposed to public scrutiny — that what is done in our name by our representatives should be apparent to us. Adding this exemption would critically reduce the value of FOI. It should certainly not be done.

Q. What protection should there be for information which involves candid assessment of risks? For how long does such information remain sensitive?

There is a very fundamental principle at work here: when public money is being spent, the public has a right to know and understand the basis on which the spending decisions are made. In absence of such knowledge, the notion of “open government” is farcical. This pertains particularly in the case of risk assessments, as we should all understand from the many cases in which risks have been underplayed in ways that, in retrospect, seem obvious. Many eyeballs make assessment more robust. Public scrutiny will help to ensure that the best and wisest decisions are made, and that opportunities for corruption are minimised.

When attempting to extend surveillance in ways that infringe on the civil liberties of citizens, the Government repeatedly uses arguments along the lines “if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear”. That idea surely applies far more strongly to the deliberations of public bodies than to the communications of private citizens.

Q. Should the executive have a veto (subject to judicial review) over the release of information? If so, how should this operate and what safeguards are required?

Given how disastrous our illegal involvement in the Iraq war was, it seems that the use of ministerial veto in this case was spectacularly wrong — though we will only know how wrong when the Chilcot Inquiry is finally complete. Similarly, most informed opinion of recent NHS reforms is that they are harmful. Hiding these discussions has not been in the public interest — and government exists only for the public interest. For this reason, I would if anything weaken the right of ministerial veto; certainly not strengthen it.

Q. What is the appropriate enforcement and appeal system for freedom of information requests?

Authorities should have to justify decisions about FOI; otherwise the whole process is a shame. An organisation which can decline an FOI request and say nothing about why they have done so is not effectively subject to FOI at all.

Q. Is the burden imposed on public authorities under the Act justified by the public interest in the public’s right to know? Or are controls needed to reduce the burden of FoI on public authorities?

I would not necessarily oppose the introduction of a SMALL fee — say £1 — to discourage the bulk issuing of frivolous requests. However, in many cases, multiple separate FOI requests are necessary in order to legitimately obtain related information from a range of institutions, and large fees must not be allowed to discourage this.

For example, the eminent mathematician Sir Tim Gowers and others have used multiple FOI requests to UK universities to determine how much money they spend each year on subscriptions to the scholarly journals published by Elsevier — information which the universities would otherwise have been forbidden to disclose by ND clauses in their contracts with the publisher. This information is now freely available and may be analysed by anyone. An analysis by Zen Faulks shows that there is essentially no correlation between the size of a university and the amount it pays Elsevier. Armed with this information, UK universities will be better able to use their public funding by renegotiating their contracts with a publisher who at present extracts more than £18M from the 24 Russell-Group universities alone. By using FOI requests to turn an opaque, dysfunctional market into a transparent, efficient one, Gowers and his colleagues have probably saved UK Higher Education £5-10M per year — something that could never have happened had FOI fees been too high.

3 responses to “My comments on the Government’s call for evidence on Freedom Of Information

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Well thought out and appropriate; great response!

  2. Pingback: My, and my wife’s, submissions on the NHS Agenda | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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