Freedom of Information: Cabinet Secretary 'broadly happy' with existing rules amid calls for reform

Sir Jeremy Heywood has been accused of advocating watering-down of public’s right to request information from Whitehall

Oliver Wright
Political Editor
Tuesday 22 December 2015 21:12
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Jeremy Heywood, permanent secretary at No 10 and Cabinet Secretary
Jeremy Heywood, permanent secretary at No 10 and Cabinet Secretary

The Freedom of Information Act is working well and does not need to be fundamentally reformed, the country’s most senior civil servant believes.

Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, has been accused of advocating a watering-down of the public’s right to request information from Whitehall as part of a review into the workings of the act. He is on record as suggesting that some elements of the act were having “a chilling effect” on the workings of government.

But The Independent understands that the Civil Service has made no representations to the review being conducted into the workings of the act, and that Sir Jeremy is broadly happy with the way the current rules are working.

It follows reports that the minister in charge of the working of the act is opposed to any changes that could make it more difficult for the public to obtain data.

Matthew Hancock, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, is understood to be against introducing fees for FoI requests or restricting access to government information any further – both ideas being considered by the commission.

So far, the commission has received 30,000 responses to its consultation document suggesting three reforms to FoI: charging for the requests; making it easier to refuse requests on cost grounds; and giving ministers more powers to veto disclosures.

Senior Whitehall sources said Sir Jeremy was not in favour of either charging for requests or cost limits, but was keen for the legislation to be tightened to make it clear what categories of information should be subject to ministerial veto. They said the concern in Whitehall was narrowly focused on a Supreme Court ruling ordering the publication of the so-called “black spider memos” – correspondence between Prince Charles and ministers.

“The truth is that everybody thought the legislation as it stood would protect such information, but that is not the way it has been interpreted by the courts,” said the source.

“Sir Jeremy has made clear that he wants the civil service to be more open, not less.”

Tom Watson MP, Labour’s deputy leader and shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, claimed the Government was turning the Freedom of Information review into a “farce”. He said: “The review has been a waste of time and public money. It’s time for the Government to accept the act has been a success and confirm it will stay in its current form.”

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