Maurice Frankel: An important blow has been struck for freedom of information


Almost unnoticed, the Freedom of Information Act was last week spared a potentially devastating blow.

The Government had been proposing to create a new FOI exemption, blocking access to cabinet materials less than 20 years old. This was to have been included in a package, which the Commons votes on today, which also requires old government files to be released after 20 instead of 30 years.

The exemption would have carved out a black hole at the heart of the FOI Act. The chances of obtaining cabinet or cabinet committee minutes are already slim. A ministerial veto has twice been used to block their release. But the proposed exemption would also have applied to papers circulated to any cabinet committee.

Ministers wanting to keep their secrets safe could flash them in front of a cabinet committee, instantly prohibiting public access for 20 years. A new top layer of secrecy beyond the Act's reach would have been created.

The order to drop this damaging exemption appears to have come directly from the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. And not for the first time. A similar Brown intervention on behalf of the Act occurred in 2007 after the Blair administration attempted to make it easier for authorities to refuse FOI requests.

Mr Brown had faced a storm of criticism after the FOI release of Treasury papers on pension tax credits. Yet one of his first decisions as Prime Minister was to quash the proposed restrictions.

The new 20-year rule, which will be phased in, represents a strengthening of the FOI regime, allowing old official records to appear while people can still recall the events concerned.

There will also be one less welcome step. The Royal Family's communications with government will be excluded from the Act for 20 years, and then until five years after the death of the individual concerned.

The main aim appears to be to protect Prince Charles's correspondence with ministers. None has yet been disclosed, but currently it could be – rightly so – if the Prince's intervention seriously affects a minister's decision. That door regretfully may now be closed.

Maurice Frankel is director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information