TPA welcomes Clegg's proposals to strengthen Freedom of Information powers

January 06, 2011 11:46 AM

Tony Blair said in his autobiography that the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act was one of his greatest mistakes. It wasn’t. It was his biggest legislative achievement. It has allowed taxpayers to get information on how their money is spent, and how their public services are run. Before the election last year, the TaxPayers’ Alliance produced a manifesto which called for the strengthening of the FOI Act within the first year of a new Government taking office.

So it was extremely welcome news this morning that the coalition is planning to extend the UK’s Freedom of Information laws. Nick Clegg has announced plans to make bodies such as the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Advertising Standards Agency, Network Rail and the Local Government Association subject to the legislation. The Act has provided ordinary members of the public with unprecedented access to data that they have always deserved to see, without obfuscation. In this long overdue move, the coalition will extend it so taxpayers can delve into the books of many more organisations that receive vast sums of their money, and are really extensions of government. According to Mr Clegg the scope of the act will be extended to include “potentially hundreds more bodies.”

When we’ve carried out our quangos surveys we’ve seen that some bodies are nearly completely funded by the public purse but are not subject to the FOI act. For example, the Carbon Trust receives over £100 million a year from taxpayers who currently have no right to find out how they spend it, it should clearly be among the bodies the Act is extended to. And when we completed our report on where Regional Development Agencies’ (RDA) grants were going, we uncovered a whole pseudo public sector: bodies set up and nearly entirely funded by the RDA and the local council but completely closed off to scrutiny by taxpayers, or seemingly even the relevant government department. Our report on Taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning found that many organisations like Alcohol Concern were dependent on the Department of Health for the vast majority of their funding. Nick Clegg should be commended for this move but it’s crucial that bodies such as these are included in the broadened scope of the Act if taxpayers are to be given full information on public spending.

Along with the scope of the Act it’s just as important it can function effectively. Changes are also required to make it easier for the public to submit requests and making it more difficult for public bodies to refuse or delay the provision of information. From our experience, the 20 day statutory time limit organisations have to respond is not always adhered to, with no consequences for a delay some organisations put requests off almost indefinitely. The current ICO procedures for not replying to a request can carry an unlimited fine, however with investigations often taking in excess of 12 months, they rarely materialise because a prosecution must be made within a six month limit as outlined in the Act. The most notorious example being the ‘Climate-gate’ scandal. On top of this, it would be a good idea to directly fund the Information Commissioner’s Office – the gatekeepers of the legislation – from Parliament, as currently happens with the National Audit Office.

In time more proactive transparency from Government, both local and national, should mean that the public will not have to submit FOI requests for certain pieces of information.  For example, we won’t need to submit FOIs to compile the Town Hall Rich List in England and Wales this year (though it will still be necessary in Scotland and Northern Ireland). I’ve heard arguments to the contrary – transparency will pose more questions than it answers. This may be true in the infancy of transparent government, but once the system is more open, clear and sophisticated – and a culture of transparency is properly engendered – we should start to see the need for submitting FOI requests drop off. Robust FOI legislation should be maintained, improved and work alongside this, of course.

Nick Clegg has said that if an organisation’s behaviour and decisions had “clear consequences for the public good, people must be able to see right into the heart of them.” He’s right, and he should be applauded. And Tony Blair was right too. Back in 2000, that is.

Matthew Sinclair, Director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said:
“It is great news that the coalition are planning to extend the greatest legislative achievement of the last Government.  There are a range of organisations – from the Carbon Trust founded and funded by government to Alcohol Concern, who are also overwhelmingly dependent on public money – where taxpayers have a right to find out how their cash is being spent.  The Government should also look at introducing sanctions for unwarranted delays, an unacceptable tactic used to evade FOI requests, and getting rid of the bizarrely short statute of limitations that means most offences under FOI law are exempt because it takes longer for the offence to become apparent and be processed by the Information Commissioners’ Office.  Another sensible reform would be to fund the ICO directly from Parliament like the National Audit Office, so ministers who resent FOI requests can’t block up the system by starving it of resources.  Finally, some exemptions need to be clarified so that, for example, there can be proper democratic scrutiny and debate before treaties are signed.  Nick Clegg deserves huge credit for launching this move towards fresh transparency, hopefully the Government will follow through with an ambitious extension of FOI sooner rather than later.”
Tony Blair said in his autobiography that the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act was one of his greatest mistakes. It wasn’t. It was his biggest legislative achievement. It has allowed taxpayers to get information on how their money is spent, and how their public services are run. Before the election last year, the TaxPayers’ Alliance produced a manifesto which called for the strengthening of the FOI Act within the first year of a new Government taking office.

So it was extremely welcome news this morning that the coalition is planning to extend the UK’s Freedom of Information laws. Nick Clegg has announced plans to make bodies such as the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Advertising Standards Agency, Network Rail and the Local Government Association subject to the legislation. The Act has provided ordinary members of the public with unprecedented access to data that they have always deserved to see, without obfuscation. In this long overdue move, the coalition will extend it so taxpayers can delve into the books of many more organisations that receive vast sums of their money, and are really extensions of government. According to Mr Clegg the scope of the act will be extended to include “potentially hundreds more bodies.”

When we’ve carried out our quangos surveys we’ve seen that some bodies are nearly completely funded by the public purse but are not subject to the FOI act. For example, the Carbon Trust receives over £100 million a year from taxpayers who currently have no right to find out how they spend it, it should clearly be among the bodies the Act is extended to. And when we completed our report on where Regional Development Agencies’ (RDA) grants were going, we uncovered a whole pseudo public sector: bodies set up and nearly entirely funded by the RDA and the local council but completely closed off to scrutiny by taxpayers, or seemingly even the relevant government department. Our report on Taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning found that many organisations like Alcohol Concern were dependent on the Department of Health for the vast majority of their funding. Nick Clegg should be commended for this move but it’s crucial that bodies such as these are included in the broadened scope of the Act if taxpayers are to be given full information on public spending.

Along with the scope of the Act it’s just as important it can function effectively. Changes are also required to make it easier for the public to submit requests and making it more difficult for public bodies to refuse or delay the provision of information. From our experience, the 20 day statutory time limit organisations have to respond is not always adhered to, with no consequences for a delay some organisations put requests off almost indefinitely. The current ICO procedures for not replying to a request can carry an unlimited fine, however with investigations often taking in excess of 12 months, they rarely materialise because a prosecution must be made within a six month limit as outlined in the Act. The most notorious example being the ‘Climate-gate’ scandal. On top of this, it would be a good idea to directly fund the Information Commissioner’s Office – the gatekeepers of the legislation – from Parliament, as currently happens with the National Audit Office.

In time more proactive transparency from Government, both local and national, should mean that the public will not have to submit FOI requests for certain pieces of information.  For example, we won’t need to submit FOIs to compile the Town Hall Rich List in England and Wales this year (though it will still be necessary in Scotland and Northern Ireland). I’ve heard arguments to the contrary – transparency will pose more questions than it answers. This may be true in the infancy of transparent government, but once the system is more open, clear and sophisticated – and a culture of transparency is properly engendered – we should start to see the need for submitting FOI requests drop off. Robust FOI legislation should be maintained, improved and work alongside this, of course.

Nick Clegg has said that if an organisation’s behaviour and decisions had “clear consequences for the public good, people must be able to see right into the heart of them.” He’s right, and he should be applauded. And Tony Blair was right too. Back in 2000, that is.

Matthew Sinclair, Director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said:
“It is great news that the coalition are planning to extend the greatest legislative achievement of the last Government.  There are a range of organisations – from the Carbon Trust founded and funded by government to Alcohol Concern, who are also overwhelmingly dependent on public money – where taxpayers have a right to find out how their cash is being spent.  The Government should also look at introducing sanctions for unwarranted delays, an unacceptable tactic used to evade FOI requests, and getting rid of the bizarrely short statute of limitations that means most offences under FOI law are exempt because it takes longer for the offence to become apparent and be processed by the Information Commissioners’ Office.  Another sensible reform would be to fund the ICO directly from Parliament like the National Audit Office, so ministers who resent FOI requests can’t block up the system by starving it of resources.  Finally, some exemptions need to be clarified so that, for example, there can be proper democratic scrutiny and debate before treaties are signed.  Nick Clegg deserves huge credit for launching this move towards fresh transparency, hopefully the Government will follow through with an ambitious extension of FOI sooner rather than later.”

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