With a new Conservative government and Michael Gove appointed as Justice Secretary, what does the future hold for freedom of information? Ibrahim Hasan considers the prospects.
So now we have Conservative majority government, contrary to the pollsters’ predictions. I know what you are thinking; what now for freedom of information?
Unlike Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives did not mention FOI in their election manifesto choosing to talk about transparency instead:
“Transparency has also been at the heart of our approach to government. Over the last five years, we have been open about government spending, provided access to taxpayer-funded research, pursued open data and helped establish the Open Government Partnership. We will continue to be the most transparent government in the world.”
The Conservatives have always been keener on proactive publication of information than FOI. In July 2012, in a speech at the Policy Exchange, Francis Maude said:
“I’d like to make Freedom of Information redundant, by pushing out so much [open] data that people won’t have to ask for it.”
We could see more requirements on local authorities to publish information. Last October, an updated version of the Local Government Transparency Code was published. This requires councils (as well as, amongst others, National Park Authorities, Fire and Waste Authorities and Integrated Transport Authorities) to proactively publish certain categories information (in Part 2 of the code) whilst also recommending that they go beyond the minimum (in part 3 of the code). It could be that Part 2 of the code (the mandatory publication requirements) is extended to include more categories of information. There is also a Transparency Code for Smaller Authorities published in December last year, which could similarly be extended.
Could the Tories make an assault on FOI now that there is no coalition partner to hold them back? David Cameron has, in the past, expressed his irritation with FOI. In March 2012, giving evidence to a select committee, he said that FOI was “furring up the arteries” of government. More recently, speaking to the Times newspaper, he said:
“I wish we’d spent more time in opposition thinking about how to declutter government. What I call the buggeration factor, of consulting and consultations and health and safety and judicial review and FOI [the Freedom of Information Act] … Just generally, if you want to do something, build a road, start a new college, launch a programme to encourage people to build more houses – it takes a bloody long time.”
Initially there were no post election clues about the fate of FOI. And then came the appointment of Michael Gove as Justice Secretary; the head of the government department that is responsible for, among other things, freedom of information. To say that Gove is no fan of FOI is like saying George Galloway does not like losing elections. This is the same Michael Gove who, a few years ago, was at the wrong end of an Information Commissioner Decision Notice. This related to his time as Education Secretary when he and his officials had routinely used personal email accounts to discuss official, often controversial, department business. Apparently this was done in the belief that such emails would not be disclosable pursuant to an FOI request.
At present Gove has more pressing matters to deal with. Scrapping the Human Rights Act seems to be the Tories’ top priority. But when he does get round to FOI, it is very likely that the FOI Fees Regulations will be amended to make it easier to refuse requests for information on costs grounds. In July 2012, the Justice Select Committee published its Report into Post-Legislative Scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The Government published its official response in December 2012. The Committee recommended that consideration be given to reducing the amount of time an authority need take in searching for and compiling information:
“We would suggest something in the region of two hours, taking the limit to 16 hours rather than 18, but anticipate the Government would want to carry out further work on how this would affect the number of requests rejected.”
The Government, in its response, said that it doubts that much will be achieved through the reduction of the costs limit. It was though in favour of allowing additional factors to be taken into account in deciding whether the 18-hour limit has been reached:
“The Government does not share the assessment of the Committee that it is unfeasible to develop an objective and fair methodology for calculating the cost limit which includes further time spent dealing with information in response to a request. As such, the Government is minded to explore options for providing that time taken to consider and redact information can be included in reaching the cost limit.”
So whilst the Committee rejected the suggestion that reading, consideration and redaction time should also be taken into account when deciding whether the 18-hour limit has been reached, it could be that the Fees Regulations are amended to allow this.
At present the costs of different FOI requests can be aggregated only where the requests relate to the same or similar information. The Government may change this to make it even easier to aggregate costs. At paragraph 19 of its response, it stated:
“We will also look at addressing where one person or group of people’s use of FOIA to make unrelated requests to the same public authority is so frequent that it becomes inappropriately or disproportionately burdensome.”
Fees could also be introduced for FOI tribunal appeals. The Committee never considered the issue but the Government (at paragraph 24 of its response) indicated that it was considering the idea:
“…the Government is keen to explore the potential for users to contribute more towards the costs of tribunals. Fees are already charged in some jurisdictions (for example, in the Immigration and Asylum tribunal) and we will examine the scope for extending this approach to other types of tribunal, including the Information tribunal.”
One thing is for certain. The Police Federation will be made subject to FOI. In a speech in May 2014 the Home Secretary, Theresa May, said that the Police Federation needs to be more accountable to the public. In March this year she announced that there was no time to amend FOI to add it to the list of public authorities but she also published a draft clause “that demonstrates how that change could be made in legislation, with the intention this would be fulfilled in the next Parliament.”
Interesting times ahead for FOI officers.