Government’s “quantum leap” in transparency takes us in the wrong direction – Oh Boy

Alex Hern reports on the news that civil servants want to gut the FoI act.


Less than a year after the government pledged a “quantum leap” in transparency, the Ministry of Justice is now calling for a massive rethink on the freedom of information act (FOIA), even suggesting that higher fees should be charged for an answer.

The Guardian reports:

The survey of civil servants undertaken by the Ministry of Justice for the parliamentary inquiry discloses they do not believe the act has improved government, one of its key benchmarks. The report says: “Most officials agreed that the same issues would have been discussed and the same decisions reached had the FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] not been in place.”

The survey also revealed a frustration at the way in which “serial or vexatious requesters waste time and money by pushing their request through the internal review process and up to the information commissioner”. Some believed that such cases should incur a higher fee at a lower threshold of civil service time.’

Labour’s shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter condemned the news, saying:

A charge payable for each freedom of information request is nothing less than a tax on transparency.

Freedom of Information is a step towards healthy governance. It permits scrutiny of those in power in central and local government and devolved administrations. Introducing a charge is a potential backward step, and will unravel Labour’s drive to open up the public sector to wider scrutiny.

Currently, the FOIA allows for charges related to packaging the information and sending it to the requester – physical costs like photocopying and postage – but charging explicitly to discourage requests would be a large step away from transparency in government.

This news comes just a month after Lisa Nandy MP revealed on Left Foot Forward that the information commissioner was investigating education secretary Michael Gove over his department’s deletion of emails in an effort to avoid FoI requests.

Nandy wrote:

Since taking office Gove has proven evasive on a succession of key questions.

He refuses to reveal the cost of his free schools programme.

He wouldn’t answer my parliamentary questions about the grant he awarded, without tender, to the New Schools Network until he was ordered to by the House of Commons’ procedure committee.

He had to be ordered to answer a freedom of information request about the same subject by the Information Commissioner.

He refuses to release details of consultation by academies, and won’t publish the minutes of discussions at the DfE board (the department releases only basic headings).

It makes you wonder what it is that Gove has to hide. Perhaps when the Information Commissioner concludes his complaints, we might discover the answer.

All this after Francis Maude boasted last June that:

The new commitments represent a quantum leap in government transparency and will radically help to drive better public services.

Of course, given that a quantum leap actually takes place on a subatomic level and is one of the smallest movements it is possible to conceive of, this may be a masterful piece of physics-related trolling from the cabinet secretary. Or not.

See also:

What was hiding behind the boat: Information commissioner is investigating GoveLisa Nandy MP, January 17th 2012

Over 10,000 children under 13 in cells every year must be stoppedSophie Willett, December 13th 2011

Warnings that Scotland lagging behind England on FoIEd Jacobs, August 5th 2011

Government rhetoric on transparency doesn’t match the realityClaire French, April 7th 2011

Coalition’s “transparency trailblazer” Pickles refuses FoI requestLiam R Thompson, November 1st 2010

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