Freedom of information under fire

The Labour Government yesterday unveiled the results of its review of the FOI law. It’s bad enough that a review of government openness is conducted in total secrecy but now we discover that politicians have also forked out £75,000 to private company Frontier Economics to justify curtailing the public’s right to know.

The report by Frontier Economics picks through tens of thousands of requests to focus on eight that it believes are silly and waste time and money. It then uses these eight as the basis for shutting down the FOI regime. This is ludicrous. Will the government next consider closing down all public information lines for the sake of one or two awkward customers?

Charlie Falconer, the Lord Chancellor claims the report is independent, though the company’s brief has been to justify curtailing FOI. There is no research done on the millions of pounds saved through timely exposure from FOI. Nor is there an accounting of the money wasted by officials who refuse to answer requests and instead spend taxpayer money on lawyers and staff who obstruct the process.

Transparency is finally exposing the woefully inefficient and incompetent bureaucracy that exists in many public services. If it takes on average 7.5 hours to answer a simple FOI request, as this report states, that is more an indictment of the inefficiencies that have grown up in the culture of secrecy rather than a criticism of openness. Why has the government not commissioned a study to reveal the overwhelming costs of secrecy? Huge sums have been squandered on the NHS IT system, the fiasco of the Child Support Agency, the Criminal Records Bureau, Wembley Stadium, the Tube PFI, and the BSE crisis.

Frontier Economics is also not quite so independent as we’re led to believe. The company board includes none other than former Cabinet Secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull, who as head of the Civil Service was no friend of open government.

The Government Response rejects all of the key recommendations made by the Department of Constitutional Affairs Parliamentary Select Committee including:

  • Rec. 20 Fees – The committee said there should be no change to the fee structure. The Government rejected this and wants to include reading time, consideration time and consultation time in the calculation of the appropriate limit (£600) above which requests could be refused on cost grounds. This would have the net result of blocking all those but the most superficial and frivolous requests – exactly the ones the Government claims are a waste!
  • Rec. 14 and 15 – The Committee found there were excessive delays by public authorities and there should be set time limits for the public interest extension and internal review. The Government rejected this view.
  • Rec. 16 – The Committee said the Central Clearinghouse that controls the release of controversial information needs to be more transparent in its working and publish quarterly statistics. The Government rejected this view.
  • Rec 21 – The Committee thought the Information Commissioner was compromised by his direct dependence on the DCA and recommended he be made directly accountable to Parliament rather than DCA as is the case for the Scottish Commissioner. The Government rejected this view.

The Government also wants to aggregate requests made by any legal person, (or persons apparently acting in concert, to each public authority (e.g. Government Department) for the purposes of calculating the appropriate limit. This could mean that all requests from the ‘BBC’ or a campaign group would be grouped together, making it impossible to conduct any kind of searching investigation.
You can read all the reports on the DCA website.

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