An important rule of Government is to outsource anything difficult or potentially controversial to an independent body which can then deliver a report to be ignored or implemented as required or the political mood dictate. The recent investigation into new runways at Heathrow was a good example, at least until it came up with an answer the Prime Minister didn’t entirely want to hear, and the Commission on a Bill of Rights was a superlative instance of a very learned study which achieved precisely nothing other than kicking a political football into the long grass.
Now it is the turn of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to be undergone scrutiny by the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information. Snappy title. It is chaired by Lord Burns (former senior civil servant at HM Treasury) and contains such luminaries as Jack Straw, Lord Michael Howard, Lord Carlisle and Dame Patricia Hodgson (of Ofcom). Just in case anyone was suffering under the delusion that the Commission would be looking into widening the scope and application of FOIA, the terms of reference are set by the Cabinet Office as:
- whether there is an appropriate public interest balance between transparency, accountability and the need for sensitive information to have robust protection
- whether the operation of the Act adequately recognises the need for a ‘safe space’ for policy development and implementation and frank advice
- the balance between the need to maintain public access to information, the burden of the Act on public authorities and whether change is needed to moderate that while maintaining public access to information
One would not, however, wish readers to think that the Government were anything less than fully committed to revealing information. On the contrary, the written statement laid by the Minister, Lord Bridges, opens by saying “We are committed to being the most transparent government in the world.” Well, quite. “We fully support the Freedom of Information Act [could there be a ‘but’ coming?] but [ah yes, there it is] after more than a decade in operation it is time that the process is reviewed, to make sure it’s working effectively.” The new Commission has a webpage here and is to report by November, which gives the grass limited time to lengthen… The Commission won’t, of course, be able to do anything about the EIRs.
Responsibility for FOIA has also been transferred to the Cabinet Office, which at least gives Michael Gove one less constitutional headache to deal with.