FOIA is ‘working well’ – review body finds

So there we have it: FOIA is working well and does not need to be substantially reformed. These are the overall conclusions of the FOIA review commission, as confirmed today by Cabinet Office Minister Matt Hancock (see the BBC report here). This outcome will come as a surprise (and a huge relief) to many who had believed that the commission would follow the Blair line and conclude that the FOIA genie needed to be put firmly back in its bottle. So apparently a triumphant outcome for those in favour of the transparency agenda, but a sorry day for those who, like Mr Blair, believe that FOIA has had and continues to have a ruinous effect on government.

The full report is due to be published shortly. It will be interesting to see whether, despite Mr Hancock’s announcement, there are some proposed changes which may yet have a rather hobbling effect on the FOIA regime. For example, it is not presently clear whether the report may effectively invite the Government to press ahead with a fees regime for FOIA tribunal cases. That said some media reports are already suggesting that, in response to the report, the Government has ruled out introducing a fees and has also opted not to shore up the veto regime, which was so extensively undermined in Evans v Information Commissioner (see here).

Of course, FOIA is itself a highly politicised football and it is hard to imagine that reining in a legislative regime designed to put power in the hands of the people would have been anything other than a fairly politically toxic proposition for the Government. Certainly, the deep opposition to such a proposition voiced by Labour politicians, such as Tom Watson MP, not to mention Conservative politicians such as David Davis MP, can hardly have reassured the Government that introducing restrictions on the FOIA regime would have been a political walk in the park.

An interesting question which many will now be pondering is whether the conclusions of the commission may actually add grist to the mill of those who are campaigning for an extension of the FOIA regime. For example, one wonders whether in the months to come we shall see a renewed focus on opening up the FOIA regime so that it applies to privatised public functions (see this further Guardian report on Tom Watson MP’s comments on this issue). One thing is for sure however, there will be further discussion both of the commission’s report and its aftermath on Panopticon.

Anya Proops QC