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June 11, 2009

Mixed response from FoI campaigner to Brown reforms

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has welcomed some of Gordon Brown’s proposed changes to parliamentary transparency, including the cutting of the 30-year period before old official papers are made public to 20 years.

This was a substantial step, the Campaign said, even if it did not go as far as the 15 year period recommended by the Dacre Review earlier this year.

Brown announced the change yesterday in an attempt to improve trust in politics in the wake of the MPs expenses scandal.

Justice secretary Jack Straw is looking at the case for extending FoI. Currently the Act includes national and local government, but many so-called “quasi-autonmous” public bodies or “quangos” are exempt, despite spending billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money every year.

The announcements were not all good news however. CFOI expressed concern over Brown’s plans for some new exemptions from the Act – including Cabinet papers and information relating to the Royal family.

The group accused the government of trying to exclude cabinet papers from the scope of the Act altogether.

Maurice Frankel, the CFOI director, said: “Everyone accepts that Cabinet minutes should not normally be disclosed, other than in truly exceptional circumstances. But if someone asks for a paper submitted to a Cabinet committee five or 10 years ago that request should be considered on its merits.

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“To exclude the whole class of Cabinet papers from the Act is an unnecessary, retrograde step, which will protect much material that does not need to be confidential and allow the top of level of government to operate in absolute secrecy.”

CFOI also pointed out that the Act already contains an exemption for information relating to communications with the Royal family, which is subject to the Act’s public interest test. It said additional protection was not needed.

Frankel said: “If, for example, there is correspondence between, say, Prince Charles and ministers about proposed legislation that should remain, as at present, potentially disclosable on public interest grounds.”

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