Who is a ‘Qualified Person’

A section in the Freedom of Information Act gives public authorities the option to exempt certain information if a qualified person believes that releasing it is not in the public interest. Who are these qualified people? Until now, no one was sure. The Department for Constitutional Affairs has just released a list of these ‘qualified’ people on their website. Companies which are owned by a public authority are listed separately. I have not seen any public consultation or debate about how these people were chosen. For all anyone knows, they could have been chosen from a hat. But if you want to give the DCA your opinion, why not email them.

Section 36 is an example of how NOT to draft a FOI law. It is a ‘catch-all’ exemption for information ‘prejuducial to the effective conduct of public affairs’. This definition is purposely vague and far-reaching and guaranteed to undermine the public’s right to know. It can cover pretty much anything and everything, which is just the way politicians like it.

As if the exemption is not bad enough, the ‘qualified person’ is allowed the final say on what is in the public interest. As these are always people associated with the authority rather than the public they are hardly going to be objective. For example the Vice Chancellor of a University can decide whether info is in the public interest when s/he is precisely the person who would most want to keep embarrassing facts under wraps.

Worse yet – when the qualified person is a government minister his or her opinion overrides the decision of the independent Information Commissioner.

Section 36 has to go!

2 Responses to “Who is a ‘Qualified Person’”

  1. That’s terrible! So for every organisation the “qualified person” is the head of that organisation, meaning that if they like they could block all information under the act.

    Don’t go telling them 🙂

  2. Richard Nesbitt says:

    Yes, it means just that. Our only hope is that the Information Commissioner will be robust in criticising cover-ups. More prosaically, at least so far as central government is concerned, the requirement to get the ministerial certificate may be a slight deterrent because it means sending a note to the minister and clogging up the system! Equually, that might just lead them to expand the definition of ‘quualified person’!

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