A guest post from Jonathan Baines
“Before the game’s afoot, thou still let’st slip”
The government is said to be proposing to introduce charges for making Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) requests. BBC Newsnight reports that it has
learned that the government is gearing up to charge for freedom of information enquiries… gearing up to charge different tariffs
So now we know where the battle-line is drawn. Or do we?
This story comes in the middle of a process by which FOIA is subjected to what is known as post-legislative scrutiny. This process, under which a committee is asked to investigate how an Act of Parliament has operated since its commencement, has been followed in some detail by the saveFOI campaign: the founders of that campaign (of which I am one) think that the scrutiny is important. We welcome any review of FOIA, while opposing any suggestions it should be weakened. We have attended some of the committee sessions, and live-tweeted remotely where that hasn’t been possible. We have written many blog posts on the subject. Suffice to say we are actively engaging in the process as interested citizens.
But what is strange is that Allegra Stratton’s* Newsnight story did not refer to the post-legislative scrutiny process. It arrived on the back of no committee report, no government statement, no ministerial interview. The government guidance on post-legislative scrutiny suggests that Committee findings should not be pre-judged, or pre-empted
The Committee’s report would contain such observations and conclusions about the implementation and operation of the Act as the committee thought fit. These would be directed towards Government, which would be expected to respond in the normal way
Yet, if Allegra Stratton’s sources are reliable, it looks like someone in government has already made up their mind, and wants to get that message out.
The Prime Minister recently spoke about FOI at the Commons Liaison Committee, and some of that oral evidence was shown in the Newsnight report. He contrasted FOIA unfavourably with pro-active disclosure of information under the government’s Transparency agenda (on this subject, Tim Turner’s post here is essential reading), and said that
Making government more transparent is the best thing
No one would argue with that, although as the saveFOI campaign has previously said, FOI and the Transparency agenda are two cogs in the same machine, not options to be chosen between.
Any proposal to charge for making FOI requests would be a huge (and in my view, detrimental) change to one of our most important civic rights, and transparency surely dictates that such a proposal should be discussed openly, so that pros and cons can be given equal space? Selective, non-transparent disclosure of proposals enables those supporting them to give only such information which supports their cause. It enables them to set the agenda, get the right headlines and draw the opposition’s sting. It is not a transparent process, and I would hope that all people, including politicians, who support the Transparency agenda, would oppose it.
Decisions about the future of FOI cannot be allowed to take place behind the closed doors of government.