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Select Committee confirms Constitution Unit analysis in review of Freedom of Information Act

26 July 2012

In its Post-Legislative Scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, to be published on Thursday 26 July, the Commons Justice Committee has drawn heavily on the Constitution Unit’s analysis of how well the FOI Act is working, and cited the Unit’s research and evidence over 40 times in the Committee’s report.

“The Justice Committee has conducted a very thorough review of the operation of the Act”, said Director of the Constitution Unit Prof Robert Hazell.  “They concluded, as we did, that FOI has led to greater transparency and accountability.  But it has not achieved its secondary aims of improving the quality of government decision making, or increasing public understanding of those decisions; nor has it led to an increase in public trust, or public participation in government.  In those respects FOI was over-sold.  In reaching those conclusions the Committee drew heavily on our research projects which evaluated the impact of FOI on Whitehall, and on local government”.

The Committee also drew heavily on the Constitution Unit’s research on the costs of FOI, and on whether FOI has had a chilling effect.  It decided not to recommend an application fee for FOI, and decided not to recommend a stronger exemption for policy advice, or a specific exemption for Cabinet papers.  Instead the Committee invited senior government officials to re-affirm that there is a safe space for policy discussions, and that the government is prepared to use the veto to protect that space. 

Prof Hazell commented, “That will not provide the greater certainty which officials like Sir Gus O’Donnell were calling for.  Officials  will not know until much later whether the veto might be applied.  At best they might know that the government is more willing to exercise the veto.  But that guesswork might degenerate into a cat and mouse game, with greater friction between the government and the Information Commissioner”. 

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