Our Prime Minister is committed to transparency in government. In June 2010 he set up a Public Sector Transparency Board containing some of the great and good in the field of open data and transparency: you’d struggle to pick better people than Tom Steinberg, Nigel Shadbolt, Rufus Pollock and Tim Berners-Lee (I’m not hyperlinking him – if you don’t know who he is then find out who invented hyperlinks). The Board is chaired by Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, who has written – at the same time as he was lambasting Tony Blair’s dispiriting comments on freedom of information - that
If I ever sit down to write my own memoirs, freeing up government information will not number amongst my regrets. In fact, I very much hope that it will be one of my very proudest achievements.
Mr Cameron seems to feel the same way:
In the years to come, people will look back at the days when government kept all its data – your data – in vaults and think how strange it was that the taxpayers – the people who actually own all this – were locked out.
Now, it so happens that there has been, in recent months, much debate about whether – or rather, to what extent – private emails written by those connected with the Department for Education are “caught” by the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). (Read the BBC’s Martin Rosenbaum and the Financial Times’ Chris Cook on this, I insist). The Information Commissioner has been very clear that his view is that information concerning official business held in private email accounts is subject to FOIA (he’s right, by the way) but Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, told the House of Commons Education Select Committee that
The advice that we had received from the Cabinet Office was that anything that was held on private email accounts was not subject to Freedom of Information requests.
So, when, Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan, tabled a question in parliament on 6 February asking if the Cabinet Office would publish
guidance on private emails and the Freedom of Information Act referred to in the Education Select Committee evidence session of 31 January 2012 as having been issued to the Department for Education.
It was, let’s say, not very encouraging for those of us who support the “transparency agenda” (as it seems it must be called) that she received the following response
Information relating to internal discussion and advice is not normally disclosed
Yep. That’s right – internal information about how a goverment department handles requests under FOIA, is not to be disclosed.
It might be thought odd, or interesting, or both, that the minister who replied to Ms Nandy was Francis Maude, MP. I’ll leave you to write your own jokes.