MPs reject Tony Blair criticism of FoI

A cross-party group of MPs today dismissed claims that the Freedom of Information Act is damaging the process of government.

Former prime minister Tony Blair and Lord O'Donnell, who resigned as head of the civil service last year, have criticised the legislation for curtailing frank discussions at the top of Whitehall, and Prime Minister David Cameron has also expressed frustration with the Act, saying that it "furs up the whole of government".

But the Justice Select Committee said that the legislation, which reached the statute book in 2000 under Blair, was "a significant enhancement of our democracy" and was "working well".

"We do not believe that there has been any general harmful effect at all on the ability to conduct business in the public service, and in our view the additional burdens are outweighed by the benefits," the cross-party committee said in a report.

It also dismissed concerns about the cost to public authorities of dealing with freedom of information requests, saying that had to be "weighed against the greater accountability the right to access information brings".

"In addition, there is evidence of both direct cost savings, where a freedom of information request has revealed erroneous public spending, and an indirect impact whereby public authorities know that they will be exposed to scrutiny as a result of the Act and use resources accordingly," it said.

The committee recommended reducing the time a public body is expected to spend on each request, but only after a "rigorous cost-benefit analysis" of any such move.

It also called for higher fines for destroying information and a requirement that public bodies should publish data on the timeliness of their responses.

The committee urged that access to information should not be diminished by the involvement of private companies in public service provision.

Blair has previously lamented his decision to introduce the Freedom of Information Act and, in a submission to the Justice Committee's inquiry, said that ministers and civil servants now felt "hugely constrained" in their discussions.

"Even if they think that something does not fall within the ambit of FOI, they will, rightly, have little confidence that the Act will be applied in the way anticipated," he wrote.

"Thus, the absolutely necessary committing to writing of often complex political and technical issues, is undermined. Of course, this is a subjective judgment. But I suspect it is one shared by most senior politicians."

Blair said he had thought the legislation would benefit the public, but instead it had "tilted the scales" in favour of the media's ability to publish confidential policy discussions.

"Short term that may be fine. Long term it will just result in a different way of conducting the business of government," he wrote.

Lord O'Donnell has called for the Act to be reviewed to ensure there is "open space" for the Cabinet, ministers and civil servants to have confidential and sensitive discussions with the confidence that they will not end up in the public domain.

But the Justice Committee reported that it could not conclude with any certainty that a "chilling effect" had arisen from the Freedom of Information Act.

"We see no reason why former senior ministers and officials in particular would flag this up as a concern if they did not genuinely believe it to be so, and we think their views are of value," it said.

"However, so too of value is the increased openness introduced by the Act and, especially, the power of individuals to exercise their right to information proactively, rather than having public authorities decide what they will disclose, when and to whom, even when acting with the best intentions.

"Equally, there are other reasons why some officials and politicians may be increasingly reluctant to create paper records, not least the increasing possibility that some form of public inquiry may lead to the subsequent publication of minutes and records."

The committee said the Act was meant to "protect high-level policy discussions" and that the ministerial veto was available to ensure that that principle was observed.

Committee chairman and Liberal Democrat MP Sir Alan Beith said the Act made public bodies "more open, accountable and transparent", adding: "It has been a success and we do not wish to diminish its intended scope, or its effectiveness.

"The Act was never intended to prevent, limit, or stop the recording of policy discussions in Cabinet or at the highest levels of Government, and we believe that its existing provisions, properly used, are sufficient to maintain the 'safe space' for such discussions.

"These provisions need to be more widely understood within the public service. They include, where appropriate, the use of the ministerial veto."

A spokesman for Blair's office said he had submitted written evidence to the committee in response to its questions.

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