2015 was a year when the Freedom of Information Act came under attack; 2016 could prove to be the year it is damaged.
The government’s FOI Commission – the ‘independent review’ of the decade old Act – has been rumbling on for months. It was announced in July, called for evidence in October, and said it would be delayed in November.
Up to now it has mostly been lip-service, very little has actually happened. Yet, only the least cynical would say there wasn’t a connection between the review being launched 10 years after the Act’s inception and the government’s loss of the Prince Charles’ letters case, one of the most high profile and costly FOI battles.
The next 12 months will be when it gets real and when we see if the Commission has any bite.
Senior politicians have already told reporters that weakening the FOI Act would be politically dangerous and the head of the civil service, Jeremy Heywood, has partially backtracked on his comments to say that FOI is broadly working well. The minute climb downs have come following overwhelming public, campaign, and press support for the right to know (30,000 submissions of evidence, 85,000 signatures, and 140 organisations, to name a few).
Nevertheless the Commission, with its opinionated and, possibly, regretful inclusion of Jack Straw, still has to produce a report. It will still make recommendations and the government will respond to them.
We have yet to be given a deadline for when the review panel will present its findings (its initial deadline was before the end of 2015) but the wheels will start to turn in January. Two evidence sessions – it’s unknown if they will be public, but based on previous transparency levels it’s unlikely – will be held towards the end of the month. The panel hasn’t announced who will be giving evidence but it’s likely to be skewed in the favour of organisations and those responding to requests, rather than requesters.
From here onwards the timescale of a report is just speculation. However, officials will not want the review to be dragging into the second half of it year though; it has already received enough bad press to leave a sour taste in the mouth.
Despite the furore coming from the printed ink and published pixels the five-person panel will stick to its original remit and this could prove to be highly dangerous to the FOI Act and the ability for the public to receive information.
Mandatory charging for requests; allowing more of government advice to stay secret; Cabinet minutes could have blanket exemptions; and making it easier for ministers to block publication still can be on the table. Many of the areas may also be altered by secondary legislation, such as statutory instruments, that involve very little, if any, voting and debate by politicians.
Until the government rules out any changes the threat to FOI in the UK remains real and worryingly, in the grand scheme of things, imminent.