Mostly because I haven’t posted much on this blog recently, I’m uploading a version of a talk I gave at the recent conference of the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC). I was asked to talk, alongside FOIKid Bilal Ghafoor, and tribunal judge David Farrer QC, about what the teenage years of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 might look like. After I’d reflected on this, I ended up rather more optimistic than I expected. YMMV, as they say.
Before I talk about the future, and FOI as it enters those awkward teenage years, I wanted to reflect a bit on its early infanthood. Has it achieved what it was hoped it would achieve? Has it worked well?
As is sometimes overlooked, Parliament declined to enact a purpose clause into the 2000 Freedom of Information Act (against the urging of the then Information Commissioner Elizabeth France). So when we talk about whether FOIA has achieved its aims, we are, to an extent, second guessing what Parliament intended. However, in 2012 the Justice Committee conducted post-legislative scrutiny of FOIA, and the Ministry of Justice (drawing on the original White Paper which preceded the Act) identified four objectives for it:
- openness and transparency;
- better decision making;
- and public involvement in decision making, including increased public trust in decision making by government
And the committee felt that FOIA has achieved the first three but the secondary objective of enhancing public confidence in Government had not been achieved, and was unlikely to be achieved.
And I think this is broadly right: we have seen more openness and transparency – when working well together FOIA feeds into the Transparency Agenda and vice versa. Huge amounts of public sector information have been made available where once it wasn’t. And with openness and transparency come, or should come more accountability and better decision making. But that final objective, involving increasing public trust in decision making, has almost been achieved in the negative – and that is partly to do with how the public hear about FOIA. Many, probably most, major FOIA stories run by the media almost inevitably involve scandal or highlight wasteful practice, and often go hand in hand with litigation aimed at preventing disclosure. The MPs expenses scandal was one of FOIA’s major victories (although, let us not forget, it was a leak to the Telegraph, rather than a final FOIA disclosure, that led to the full details coming out) but while it enhanced FOIA’s status, it’s hard to say it did anything but greatly damage public trust in government, and more widely, politicians.
But the Justice Committee report identified something else, and something very relevant when we start to look to the future of FOIA. It stated that “the right to access public sector information is an important constitutional right” – something which Lady Justice Arden also recognised in her recent Court of Appeal judgment in the Dransfield case. And when something is identified as part of our constitution, it becomes pretty hard to remove it, or amend it to any great extent. The Conservative government appear to be experiencing this at the moment, as their plans to repeal the Human Rights Act have been stalled. The Human Rights Act can also be said to have achieved constitutional status – by incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into the domestic law of the UK, it represented a major shift in how individual rights are protected under British law. It may well end up being the case that the only way the Act could be repealed would be by replacing it with something essentially the same (or by pulling out of the Convention, and pulling out of Europe) and even then, as Lord Bingham said
“Which of these rights…would we wish to discard? Are any of them trivial, superfluous, unnecessary? Are any them un-British?”
The rights enshrined in the European Convention are fundamental, and they’re not going to go away, and when one considers that one of them – Article 10 – contains not just the right to freedom of expression, but the right to receive and impart information (subject to necessary and lawful conditions) one can begin to perceive that a Freedom of Information Act helps give effect to this fundamental right.
A majority of the Supreme Court, in the Kennedy judgment last year, went even further, and said that a (qualified) right to receive information from a public authority was not just enshrined in the Convention Rights, but existed (and always has existed) under the Common Law.
What I’m saying, by going off on a somewhat legalistic tangent, is that the right to request and receive public sector information is so fundamentally embedded in our legal and constitutional landscape, that I don’t see any realistic challenge to the principle (and I doubt any of you would). But it also means that any tinkering with the right becomes correspondingly difficult. And this is why although I think FOI will have some teenage tantrums, it won’t have a huge teenage meltdown and emerge from its bedroom a completely different individual.
But with that important caveat, what might we see?
Well, under Francis Maude in the Cabinet Office and Chris Grayling at the Ministry of Justice (although Lib Dem Simon Hughes had the actual FOI brief) we saw significant strides, and a lot of fine words, about the importance of transparency, with Maude even saying in 2012
“I’d like to make Freedom of Information redundant, by pushing out so much data that people won’t have to ask for it”
But they have all gone on to other things – Maude to the Lords, Grayling to Leader of the Commons and Simon Hughes back to his day job, after losing his seat last month. Will this lead to changes? Well, still very much in post is David Cameron, and he has spoken before about his concerns about FOI “furring up the arteries of government” and of FOI’s “buggeration factor”, which doesn’t bode well for those of us who support the Act. And minister with responsibility for FOI (under Michael Gove as Justice Secretary) is Dominic Raab. Raab is strong on civil liberties and is known to be a frequent user of FOI in his parliamentary and constituency work. One of his targets was the Police Federation – in 2011 he sent requests to all forces asking for figures on the number of police staff working full-time for the Federation. But Gove is reputed not to be so keen on FOI – indeed, in 2011 his then Department of Education was found to have used private email accounts to conduct government business, apparently in the belief that this took them outside FOIA.
It does seem clear that any changes to FOIA are not high on the government’s list of priorities: there was nothing in the Conservatives’ election manifesto, and there have been no obvious pronouncements in the early days.
For a flavour though of what might be on the cards it’s instructive to go back to the government response to the post-legislative scrutiny. On the subject of FOI cost limits there was a suggestion that further factors might be taken into account – so, added to the costs of locating and retrieving information it might become possible to take into account consideration and redaction time. This could have more profound effects that is immediately apparent – as most of you will know, those two activities can take up a large amount of time, and if that change were brought in I think we would see a huge increase in cost refusals.
Another related suggestion was that for costs purposes requests from the same person or group of persons could be aggregated EVEN where there was no similarity between the subject of the requests. It is not hard to see how this would be devastating for some journalists who make use of FOI.
And a further suggestion was the introduction of fees for appealing a case to the Information Tribunal. This would be unlikely to affect public authorities, but requesters could well be dissuaded. No doubt some of those would be the more speculative, persistent or frivolous of requesters, but I would be concerned that some well-intentioned requesters would decide not to exercise their rights if such a change were made.
On the more “pro-FOI” side, we are likely to see further public authorities made subject to FOIA. ACPO of course came in in 2012, Network Rail this year, and Theresa May has made clear that she would like to see the Police Federation covered.
But also discussions need to be had about the extent to which private contractors performing public functions are caught by FOI. The government has previously indicated that it thinks this can be achieved through appropriate contractual provisions, but I’m dubious – without a clear legal obligation, and associated enforcement mechanism, I struggle to see why this would happen.
So, despite my optimism that the fundamental principles of FOI are now constitutionally embedded, I don’t necessarily think there will be no changes. But I continue to think they will be essentially minor, and this is because I think there is a further factor which protects those fundamental principles. As I said, Dominic Raab has traditionally used FOI to gather information to better help him in his job. And thousands and thousands of other people do so. Journalists are the most obvious example (and when it comes to defenders of the right to receive information you couldn’t ask for a more vocal group) but campaign groups, other public authorities, academics and private citizens do so. And for this reason FOI is popular. Unlike the Human Rights Act there are no (or very few – I don’t know of any) journalists campaigning for FOIA’s repeal. Politicians don’t campaign on a platform of opposition to the right to receive public information.
FOI does promote better openness and transparency; better accountability; better decision making, and even if it hasn’t yet, and probably never will, improve the public trust in government decision-making, one thing which would further destroy that trust would be changes to make public authorities less accountable. And the media and campaigners would be lined up to make the point vociferously.
FOI may, in its teenage years, suffer from its own equivalent of angst, anger and acne, but it will have strong friends to support it.