BY ELISABETH MAHASE
Since coming into power as a majority government, no longer burdened by their Liberal Democrat partners, the Conservative party have announced that they are reviewing the Freedom of Information (FoI) act 2000. The move came just hours after papers were released through FoI disclosing that British pilots had been involved in bombings in Syria.
Media outlets throughout the UK have responded by highlighting the importance of the FoI act and the information it has released into the public. One of the most poignant came from The Independent who censored their front page, reinforcing the message that to end the FoI, which the government is in effect doing, would stop crucial information becoming public knowledge.
According to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) the FoI act allows:"public access to information held by public authorities." The act covers any recorded information held by a public authority in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, while information held by Scottish public authorities comes under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.
On the Gov.uk site, the official announcement states:
'The Commission will review the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to consider whether there is an appropriate public interest balance between transparency, accountability and the need for sensitive information to have robust protection, and whether the operation of the Act adequately recognises the need for as 'safe space' for policy development and implementation and frank advice.'
This argument has been disputed by MPs from all major parties, with Charley Pattison, the Green Party͛s Justice Spokesperson highlighting the real need for the act:
"Freedom of Information requests have often been the strongest weapon used against corruption in government.
"The FoI Act already contains adequate protections for sensitive information; any further restrictions will most likely be to protect politicians rather than the public."
Cabinet Officer minister Matthew Hancock outlined the five-person commission which have been asked to decide whether the act is too expensive and overly intrusive. It is to be chaired by Lord Burns – who plans to drop the current rules which allow people to request information for free and replace it with a fee based system. He is also hoping to make the evidence sessions private.
The commission includes Jack Straw, former foreign secretary, who has previously called for the act to be rewritten and is still the focus of many FoI requests over the rendition of a terror suspect during his time in office, alongside Lord Carlile of Berriew who accused the Guardian of "a criminal act" after the media outlet used information leaked by Edward Snowden in some of its stories. The committee's other members are Michael Howard and Dame Patricia Hodgson.
"There should be a proper consultation with those who support the Act, not simply a result that reflects the opinions of those who have always opposed it."
While also emphasising the hypocrisy,
"Ultimately, it is hard to see how weakening the Act fits with the Prime Minister's stated objective that the UK should be 'the most open and transparent government in the world."
If the reforms go ahead and significant changes are made to the FoI act, the government will succeed in restricting public knowledge, it will be substantially harder for corruption to be brought to light and those responsible to be held accountable.