Friday, January 07, 2011

Campaign's response to Government's plans to extend the FOI Act

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has welcomed the coalition government’s announcement (see earlier post here) that it proposed:
  • to extend the FOI Act to a range of regulatory, representative and other bodies 
  • to implement the last government’s measures to release old government records after 20 years instead of 30 years
  • apply the Act to companies that are jointly owned by more than one public authority.
The Campaign said these were valuable improvements to the FOI regime.

However it pointed out that before the election both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had promised that Network Rail would be covered and that the Conservatives’ had also promised to cover Northern Rock. Neither body is being covered. Many other individual bodies, including electoral registration officers and returning officers should also be added, the Campaign said.

It also called for companies providing contracted out functions to be brought under the Act, particularly those relating to health, social services, education and criminal justice and for the Act to be extended to housing associations. The Campaign pointed out that the Scottish Government was proposing to extend the Scottish FOI Act to contractors who build or maintain schools, hospitals and roads (where the contract value is above certain thresholds), to private bodies running prisons or providing prison escort services to contractors running local authority sports or leisure centres and to the Glasgow Housing Association.

The Campaign said it was also unhappy at the decision to implement a more restrictive exemption for senior members of the Royal Family. At present, communications with the Royal Family are exempt, but potentially disclosable on public interest grounds. In future the public interest test will be removed for communications with the monarch and the next two in line to the throne. The Campaign said that where Prince Charles was seeking to actively intervene in policy decisions, his input would be withheld in all circumstances, even if it had played the decisive role.

Finally, the Campaign suggested the proposal to allow the Information Commissioner to serve for only a single 5 year term was a potentially double-edged sword. Limiting appointment to a single term only meant that the Commissioner could not be tempted to comply with the government’s wishes in order to be reappointed. But appointing a new Commissioner every 5 years could be potentially disruptive, as a new Commissioner needed at least a year to master the brief, and the Campaign suggested the Commissioner’s term of appointment should be extended to 6 or 7 years.

Full press release here.

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