Freedom Of Information: Ministers plan to widen Freedom of Information Act

A change of prime minister has led to a change of attitude towards freedom of information. But, asks Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, will politicians practise what they preach?
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The Independent Online

Was it really just a few weeks ago that information campaigners were fighting a last-ditch battle to save Britain's fledgling right-to-know laws?

Gordon Brown, fresh from his humiliating decision not to call a snap election, has managed to turn the debate on its head. Instead of dark murmurings about the media's misuse of the Freedom of Information Act, we now hear politicians leading calls for an extension of the legislation so that private companies, as well as public bodies, fall within its scope. There are further plans for a review of the arbitrary rule on 30-year disclosure.

So what of the old proposals aimed at increasing the charging regime to restrict journalists and campaign groups from using the Act? They have been dropped. A few weeks, to adapt a well-known aphorism, really is a long time in politics.

Of course Mr Brown and his new government must be applauded for taking such positive steps to embrace a culture of openness. But it is hard to forget that Jack Straw, the minister now in charge of the reform, was forced to apologise to the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, for suggesting that he was being too vigorous in using powers granted to him under the Freedom of Information Act.

And it was Mr Straw who in May gave his tacit support for a Commons private member's bill that would exempt MPs from the ambit of the three-year-old law. We will have to wait until the end of the consultation period before we discover what Mr Straw really thinks of freedom of information.

For the moment, civil liberty groups have offered the Government a cautious welcome. Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, says:

We are extremely pleased that instead of restricting the Act the Government is proposing to extend it. The original proposals would have severely undermined the legislation and suggested that the Government regretted introducing the FOI Act. Now for the first time we are seeing signs that it is taking pride in it instead.

Under the Act, the Government already has the power to bring some private companies within the scope of the right-to-know law. Section 5 of the Act enables the Secretary of State to designate two types of person or organisations as public authorities: those which appear to the Government to exercise functions of a public nature, or are providing, under a contract made with a public authority, any service whose provision is a function of that authority.

Private companies that run prisons are expected to be prime candidates to be brought under the legislation. For a long time it has been claimed that the Government has been able to use the exemptions in the Act to keep information secret about the way some prisons are being run. Mr Frankel says that key contenders for inclusion would be PFI (private finance initiative) bodies, major public service contractors and private bodies providing GP and other services for the NHS.

But before any of this becomes law, Mr Straw must first consult with each of these organisations, who may still escape inclusion by taking advantage of "impact assessments" that will allow them to ham up the harm any change to the law might have on their business.

r.verkaik@independent.co.uk