Freedom of Information news, Issue 04

  1. Government defends FOI implementation
  2. Most councils meet FOI access request deadlines
  3. FOI will weaken if ex-ministers get the right to appeal

1. Government defends FOI implementation

The Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) has published a response to criticism by the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee over the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act. The DCA’s response, published on February 14th, addresses criticism over failure to provide sufficient leadership on implementation issues and failure to provide guidance early on in the implementation process.

The DCA has stated that it will continue to update existing guidance in response to emerging case law and practical experiences of implementation. The response also outlines the Government’s thinking on future developments. The DCA has no plans at present to allow public authorities more time to respond to FOI access requests. Additionally, the DCA is not immediately looking into extending the scope of the FOI Act to cover private bodies performing public functions independently or under a contract with a public authority. It will consider this issue at a later date and once public authorities have more experience in complying with the Act.

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2. Most councils meet FOI access request deadlines

A new survey published Tuesday revealed that 86 per cent of local councils have responded to FOI requests within the 20 working day deadline. The survey, carried out by knowledge management company IDOX, examined all 439 local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales, questioning them on management practices, access requests and their use of compliance software. Over half of the councils indicated that they had invested in new technology for records management and FOI compliance.

According to the survey, the seven best performing councils were Cornwall County, Corporation of London, Dartford Borough Council, London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, London Borough of Lambeth, Nottinghamshire Country Council and Thurrock Borough Council.

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3. FOI will weaken if ex-ministers get the right to appeal

Lord Falconer, the Constitutional Affairs Secretary, has proposed that ministers from former Governments would be allowed to appeal against the publication of documents under the Freedom of Information Act, provided that the information relates specifically to them. The proposal, which is now being considered by the Conservative party, suggests that ex-ministers could ask the attorney general to block the release of information if they thought it was damaging to them.

This is a new interpretation of the FOI Act. Currently, civil servants have to weigh up whether the information amounts to a "breach of confidence" before releasing information, but they have no legal obligation to consult the persons in question.

Should the proposals give preferential treatment to this group of people go ahead, the FOI Act would be weakened. Maurice Frankel, Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said that he couldn’t see any reason why ex-ministers should not be informed as a matter of courtesy. But in a statement to the Guardian, Frankel added that he did not fully agree with the proposals: "I cannot see easily what grounds ex-ministers would have to block the information being released even if they went to the attorney general. They would have difficulty in saying it was not in the public interest; they could not claim it was breach of confidence, or it would do commercial damage."

For further details on the Privacy Laws & Business UK Newsletter, please click here.

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