Finding the right balance: FOI review to begin trawling 30,000 submissions

The Independent Commission on Freedom of Information will hear oral evidence in January after receiving more than 30,000 submissions in a public consultation that closed on Friday.

(Credit: DRs Kulturarvsprojekt via Flickr)
(Credit: DRs Kulturarvsprojekt via Flickr)

The commission, chaired by crossbench peer Lord Burns, was formed in July and tasked with reviewing the 2000 act, which came fully into force in 2005. The commission's formation coincided with the announcement that FOI policy was transferring from the Ministry of Justice to the Cabinet Office. The independent commission's PR is being handled by Collette Bird, who is on secondment from the Cabinet Office.

On 9 October, the commission launched a public call for evidence, which closed on Friday 20 November. This asked questions on topics including what protection should be given to information around internal deliberations of public bodies, how long sensitive information can remain exempt from the act, and the system for the law's enforcement.

The commission had originally said it would produce its full report, including potential recommended changes to the law, by the end of the year. However, an update published on 21 November said that it would publish its final report "as soon as possible" after two oral evidence sessions, which have been arranged in January.

Burns said: "I’m pleased to have received approximately 30,000 submissions of evidence from individuals, campaign groups, journalists and civil society organisations from all over the country. Given the large volume of evidence that we have received, it will take time to read and consider all of the submissions."

The make-up of the commission had lead to fears – particularly after comments made by one of the commissioners, former minister Jack Straw – that the government would narrow the scope of legislation, although Straw told the BBC in the summer that he went into the inquiry "to be as open-minded as possible and to weigh the evidence carefully".

A 38 Degrees petition against that prospect was signed by more than 180,000 people, and the Press Gazette has led the Hands Off FOI campaign, while several newspapers have defended the legislation.

Robin Campbell, national secretary of public sector membership body LGcommunications, said the group supported the principle behind the legislation.

He said LGCommunications "welcomes and champions the drive for greater transparency in every level of government", and that local government was "already blazing a trail in terms of openness, harnessing new technologies to open up the decision making process and drive better engagement". However, the body was not making a submission.

Iain Anderson, chair of lobbying association the APPC, said: "Finding the right balance between transparency and bureaucracy is always the big challenge. It is important that citizens have the full confidence that those organisations acting in their name exectue their functions effectively and efficiently."

He also said that 10 years since the act came into force "seems like an opportune time to review this balance".

The PRCA did not submit a response to the consultation, while the CIPR was doing so but was unable to show it to PRWeek before publication of this article.

One PR professional, who preferred not to be named, said the issue was something of a minefield and that anyone speaking about it publicly risked bad publicity. He said: "Clients might have personal views on it, but professionally they would never want to do or say anything that went against government being more transparent in how it does its business."

In their response, charity sector body the NCVO countered suggestions that FOI was an excessive bureaucratic burden for public bodies, saying this was estimated to make up less than two per cent of external comms costs. The body also said it believed that "better routine publication of data already held by authorities would significantly reduce the number of FOI requests made and in turn the burden placed on public authorities".

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