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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Why are politicians running scared of freedom laws?

This article in yesterday's Telegraph highlights the importance of access to information in holding our politicians to account. If the wrong people are allowed to regulate the flow of knowledge then our whole democratic system can be undermined.

The paper says that former politicians who have been embarrassed by Freedom of Information laws are part of a new Whitehall panel appointed by the Government to review its powers. Jack Straw, the former Labour home secretary and former Tory leader Lord Howard of Lymphne, are on the five-strong group conducting a review after 10 years of the FOI Act:

Mr Straw as Home Secretary blocked the release of Cabinet minutes relating to Scottish devolution and the Iraq War, while Lord Howard - who as an MP was Michael Howard - was criticised in the MPs’ expenses scandal for his large gardening bills, which were disclosed about after a FOI request. 

The move comes after Justice Secretary Michael Gove told MPs last month that there was a need to "revisit" the act to ensure officials were able to speak candidly to ministers.

Freedom of Information campaigners said the review was “bad news” not least because MPs on the Justice committee carried out an exhaustive inquiry two years ago.

Maurice Frankel, founder of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: “It is obviously an attempt to stop the pubic having insight into any internal discussions taking place in Government.” 

On the make-up of the panel, Mr Frankel added: “There is nobody there on the commission whose previous record is of having used the act and having benefitted from the open-ness it provides. That perspective is clearly not represented on the Commission itself.”

The commission’s chairman is Lord Burns, a former permanent secretary, while other members include Lord Carlile of Berriew, the Government’s former adviser on terrorism legislation and Dame Patricia Hodgson.

The group, who were selected by Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock, will be unpaid but will be allowed to claim expenses for their work.

The review will examine “whether there is an appropriate public interest balance between transparency, accountability and the need for sensitive information to have robust protection”.

It will also look at “whether the operation of the Act adequately recognises the need for a ‘safe space’ for policy development and implementation and frank advice”. 

The review will also look at “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”.  

My concern with this review is its remit. If it were charged with improving public access to information then I would be much happier. Instead it is being asked to rein in the Freedom of Information Act. That is bad news for democracy, scrutiny and accountability. The public need more information by which they can judge the performance of Government, not less.
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