UK Government will not sign World’s First Treaty on Access to Information

Press release from Access Info Europe and the Campaign for Freedom of Information
29 June 2009

Freedom of Information campaign groups today criticised the UK Government’s decision not to sign the world’s first binding treaty on access to official information. Despite the Prime Minister’s recent statement promising greater freedom of information , the Government has confirmed it will not currently sign the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information and Access Info Europe said there would be real benefits if the UK signed the Convention. First, it would encourage European countries with no or weak access to information laws to introduce effective legislation. Second, it would make it more difficult for any government in the UK to weaken the UK FOI Act.

“We’re concerned that one possible reason behind the Government’s decision is that it intends to introduce new exemptions to our FOI Act, which may not be compatible with the Convention. The Prime Minister recently announced that the Government would introduce two new exemptions to the Act for cabinet documents and communications with members of the Royal Family. In both cases the information would be excluded from the scope of the FOI Act altogether for 20 years, an extremely retrograde step” said Katherine Gundersen of the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

On 24 June the UK Government stated that it “does not intend to sign the Convention at this stage” adding that it “does not rule out signing in the future”. An official statement from the Ministry of Justice observed that “The UK’s Freedom of Information legislation has been a success story, providing a regime for freedom of information that is among the most open and rigorous in the world. It already goes further than the standards of the Convention in a number of areas.”

“This is clearly a spurious argument, because nothing stops any country having a higher standard than the Convention. The reluctance to sign the treaty sets a bad example for the new democracies of central and eastern Europe”, said Helen Darbishire of Access Info Europe.

Read the full press release here.
Convention on Access to Official Documents
Explanatory Report to the Convention

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