ICO blog: Justice Select Committee post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act

There’s been so much doom-mongering about the Freedom of Information Act in recent weeks that it was high time for an objective assessment of the impact of the Act to date, including consideration of how the law might be improved in the light of experience.  That was the task set the Justice Select Committee, who published the conclusions of their post-legislative scrutiny today.

Running to more than 100 pages, and considering submissions from a wide range of those who operate the Act, the report is broadly summarised in its first sentence: Freedom of Information has been a significant enhancement of our democracy and the Act is working well.

That’s a conclusion with which we at the ICO would agree. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 has opened up the corridors of power to greater scrutiny, and government, at all levels, is better for it. The Act is not without its critics, but in providing a largely free and universal right of access to information, subject to legitimate exceptions, we believe the freedom of information regime is fit for purpose.

Against that backdrop, we welcome the select committee’s support of the principles enshrined in the Freedom of Information Act.

We appreciate the committee’s comments about the need to protect the safe space for policy making at the highest levels in central government. We believe these legitimate concerns are consistent with the Commissioner’s approach to the issue, as evidenced by various decisions, for and against the disclosure of information. We will consider carefully whether our guidance on the application of this exemption requires any revision in the light of the committee’s comments.

But negative comments by senior figures about the safe space issue only serve to create a false perception, and inaccurate suggestions that the Act is not regulated consistently or as Parliament intended may discourage the use of that same ‘safe space for policy making’ for which the law provides. Such baseless comment is less than helpful. The committee’s report should help to dispel the myths.

On a more positive note, it is encouraging to see the committee’s support of greater powers for the ICO around destruction of requested information, the need for which we had highlighted in our own submission. The proposed change to remove the time limit on prosecutions would better reflect the seriousness of the offence, as would a higher penalty on conviction.

Any such changes are still some way off. The report will now be considered by the Ministry of Justice, before a final decision on any changes to the Act is made by the Cabinet. The report appears to offer an insightful and balanced commentary on the way the Act is working. The ICO will now take the time to digest it in full, before considering how we can further improve our guidance to requesters and public authorities.

Christopher GrahamChristopher Graham, Information Commissioner, has a range of responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the Data Protection Act 1998 and related laws.
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