The Commission on Freedom of Information has been condemned for an "extraordinarily inappropriate" decision to anonymise quotes submitted for its consultation.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information has written to Lord Burns, chair of the commission, to express concern over the fact that the call for evidence states: "Contributions to the consultation will be anonymised if they are quoted."
Campaign director Maurice Frankel said in a letter to Burns: "The suggestion appears to be that although the evidence submitted to the commission may at some (perhaps much later) time become public, any evidence cited in the commission's report itself will be unattributed and may be unavailable at the time of the report's publication…
"The commission is asking for 'objective, factual' evidence and says it will consider the issues 'in an entirely impartial and objective manner'. How will this process be aided by concealing the sources of evidence which the commission cites?
"It is one thing to undertake to protect the identity of individuals responding in a personal capacity – though most would probably be happy to be identified if asked. It is quite another to obscure the identity of public authorities or others on whose evidence the commission has relied in drawing up its proposals."
Frankel added: "The commission's approach would be difficult to justify in any public policy review. For a report dealing with and likely to recommend restrictions to the Freedom of Information Act it is extraordinarily inappropriate.
"If the commission cannot recognise the need for openness in its own report there is little change of it appreciating the value of the FoI Act in promoting greater openness elsewhere."
The argument for attributing evidence, Frankel said, "is that it will promote rigour by those making submissions and by the commission in drawing on them. It will allow the public and Parliament to assess and if necessary challenge any cited evidence in light of their own knowledge of the bodies and circumstances. It is an essential safeguard against inaccuracy, exaggeration or misrepresentation."
The campaign group highlighted in the letter an example of how a local authority could provide "plainly absurd" information to the commission.
It highlighted a press statement from St Albans City and District Council claiming that 1,000 FoI requests in 2013/14 cost the council £250,000, with the council's leader describing this as an "enormous sum". The CFoI said that 13 per cent of these requests were listed as being made by the Metropolitan Police.
It said: "The idea that the Metropolitan Police uses the FoI Act to obtain information from local authorities, let alone that it has made some 130 requests to a single council in one year, is plainly absurd. The council has clearly attributed many non-FoI requests to the FoI Act including those in which the police have sought information for the purpose of criminal investigations."
It said: "If the commission were to cite the council's cost figure and its leader's comments anonymously, the public and Parliament would have no way of matching the comment to the authority and of recognising that the figures were seriously flawed."
Frankel also said the commission would likely receive evidence "about the burden caused by vexatious requests", although "in certain cases the commissioner or tribunal have overturned the authority's decision". He said: "If such an authority submitted evuidence about the 'burden' caused by FoI but did not acknowledge its own responsibility for these problems, and this was cited anonymously by the commission, the public would again be seriously misled. The anonymous use of evidence should have no part to play in a report of this kind."
The campaign added: "Instead of undertakting to protect the identity of all those who are quoted, the commission should make clear that it will attribute the source of any evidence that if refers to in its report except where to do so would involve the unfair use of personal data or cause other demonstrable harm – and that anyone not prepared to submit evidence on that basis should not submit evidence at all."
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