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Changes to weaken FOI would ‘damage democracy’, warn City journalism academics

Professor Heather Brooke, Tom Felle and Jonathan Hewett have submitted recommendations to a Government advisory body

by City Press Office (General enquiries)

The Government risks damaging democracy and returning the country to an era of ‘official secrecy’ if it persists with plans to weaken the Freedom of Information Act, academics from City University London’s Department of Journalism have warned.

In a submission to the Whitehall Independent Commission on Freedom of Information, which is examining if the 2000 FOI Act should be reviewed, academics Professor Heather Brooke, Tom Felle and Jonathan Hewett have made a range of recommendations for reforming the legislation.

The Commission is due to report to Government in the New Year on recommendations for reform of the legislation. It may recommend changes to the law, which could make it more difficult for requesters to access information. The Commission may also recommend the introduction of fees for requests.

In their submission to the Commission, the City academics said that the Freedom of Information Act has had an enormous public benefit for democracy in the United Kingdom, and had opened up bureaucracy, moving public bodies away from a “culture of secrecy to a culture of openness”.

However, they warned that the cultural change required to make civil and public service bodies truly open, transparent and accountable “had yet to take hold”. They wrote:

"The United Kingdom’s Freedom of Information Act was introduced in 2000 and became operational in 2005. While we believe the legislation has been extremely important in opening up government and public bodies (and this ‘opening up’ effect has had an impact on transparency and accountability of public bodies; on the quality of decision making; and on public understanding of how bureaucracy works) it is clear that the cultural change required for freedom of information to be truly effective has not occurred in public bodies.

"Much of the language used by local government managers, by senior civil servants, and indeed by the Commission itself, represents an extremely narrow view of FOI steeped in the Westminster model of government thinking, in essence the primacy of ‘official secrecy’. The Commission is aware that the UK has a long-standing tradition of state secrecy embedded in both its civil administration and its security / military traditions. This culture of elitism and ‘official secrecy’ is evidenced in the Commission’s focus on ‘safe spaces’ and the ‘burden’ of providing the public with meaningful information. This thinking has its roots in a Westminster model that favours elitist rule rather than the more enlightened understanding of democracy which vests power in the people."

The trio warned that changes to introduce a “safe space” for civil servants to advise ministers would lead to a “dangerous space” where information that is in the public interest is kept from the public. They added:

"The safe space can become a dangerous space when there is too little accountability and oversight. Such spaces create environments where groupthink becomes endemic and divergent opinion stifled."

The academics wrote that FOI has led to more accountable, open and transparent public services and had directly led to money savings, better outcomes, better decision-making and more efficient and representative public services.

They made a number of recommended changes to the legislation to improve its operation, including:

  • The proactive publication of information by public bodies to reduce the need for FOI requests
  • Real time publication of far more data via the Government’s data site
  • Properly resourced Information Commissioner’s Office to police the Act
  • Increased cost limits annually in line with inflation and the introduction of a public interest test for cost limits, so they can be waived when requests justify it
  • Private companies who carry out public work should be covered by FOI laws.

Download the submission

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