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January 25, 2016

Jack Straw: ‘No prospect’ of universities being made FoI-exempt

By William Turvill and Press Association

There is "no prospect" of universities being exempted from Freedom of Information rules, according to a member of the commission that is reviewing the legislation.

Former justice secretary Jack Straw (pictured, Reuters) also suggested that another way to ensure a "level playing field" would be extending the FoI Act to private firms competing with the public sector.

The comments came as the government-appointed independent commission took evidence from Nicola Dandridge of Universities UK, which represents heads of institutions across the country.

Dandridge argued that universities were "subject to bureaucratic requirements that other players in that market are not".

The obligation to disclose salaries for senior posts under FoI could discourage good candidates from applying, she said.

"I think our primary point is there should be a level playing field. There is not a desire to lack transparency," she said.

"What we are proposing is that there should be a review as to the application of the act … which takes into account the circumstances of both the private providers and traditional providers."

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Dandridge added: "It is the cost and the fact they are having to disclose information about their operations that others do not have to." She cited research showing that in 2005 the average university received three requests a month and said this had increased to 18. She said the estimated cost to the institutions is around £10m a year.

But Straw said the cost of providing details under FoI worked out at £144.93 per request, which he said was "not backbreaking".

Even if the commission accepted the case for a "level playing field", it had heard no compelling evidence for exempting universities or other public sector education providers.

"I think there is no prospect of this happening," Straw said.

The other option would be to "look at whether the private institutions are standing in the shoes of public institutions and should be covered by the Act", the ex-Labour MP added.

The Independent Commission on Freedom of Information also heard evidence from Chris Hopson of NHS Providers, the membership organisation and trade association for NHS acute, ambulance, community and mental health services.

He listed six types of FoIs that NHS bodies take issue with, including those categorised as media "fishing trips".

He suggested to the commission that the FoI cost limit should be decreased from £450, representing 18 hours of work. He said this was equivalent to three working days and that it should be reduced to one working day.

Hopson also said deliberation and redaction time should be considered as part of these hours.

In addition, he proposed that the "bar for appeals [to public bodies] ought to be slightly higher". Hopson suggested that if someone wants to challenge an FoI refusal they should demonstrate in the appeal why the publuic body was wrong and what the public interest in disclosure was. He also said "reasonable", refundable if successful, fees for appeals should be considered. 

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