FOI discussed at Lib Dem fringe meeting

The Campaign held a fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat conference in Liverpool on 18 September 2010. The meeting was addressed by Lord McNally, the Ministry of Justice minister responsible for freedom of information, and Sir Alan Beith MP, the chair of the House of Commons Justice Committee.

Sir Alan spoke of two immediate challenges for freedom of information. The first was whether the government would comply with the Tribunal’s recent ruling that the minutes of the 1986 cabinet meeting, at which Michael Heseltine resigned over the Westland affair, should be disclosed. The previous government had vetoed the release of cabinet minutes on the Iraq war and cabinet sub-committee minutes on devolution. He said: “it’s my very firm hope that there will be no veto and that the decision of the Tribunal will be fully respected.”

Secondly, he argued that the Information Commissioner should be made an officer of Parliament and be appointed and funded by Parliament instead of the Ministry of Justice, which is the current position. His committee had recommended this change in two reports in 2006 and 2007 and he hoped the coalition government – which is known to be considering the issue – would implement it.

Sir Alan said there were other improvements to the FOI Act that the government could adopt, some of which were included in a Ten Minute Rule Bill introduced in September 2010 by Tom Brake MP. He promised that the Justice Committee would highlight these issues, monitor them and encourage the government to build on what had been achieved before. “Freedom of information, uncomfortable as it is for those in power, is a good news story. It’s a genuine reform which has shone light into many places in our system of government” he said.

Lord McNally told the audience that his own personal commitment to freedom of information remained as strong as ever. He pointed out that it went back to 1974 when he was a member of the Labour Party drafting committee drawing up Labour’s manifesto of that year, which was the first time the Party had formerly committed itself to FOI.

The minister couldn’t give any indication of which way the decision would go on the Westland case, but he pointed out that three former cabinet ministers from the time had already published their accounts of the meeting in their memoirs. He also pointed out that if the recent reduction in the ’30-year-rule’ to 20 years was implemented, the information would have to be revealed anyway.

On the role of the Information Commissioner, the minister said the case for the Commissioner being directly responsible to Parliament was a very strong one but it had not yet been decided. He said an announcement would be made later following a review of FOI issues: “what the coalition has committed itself to is an examination of how the Freedom of Information Act has worked, where it could be extended within its present powers and where it might be extended by primary legislation.”

He pointed out that a review of the Data Protection Act and directive was taking place and that, Francis Maude the Cabinet Office minister was promoting the release of data sets across Whitehall.

He added: “over long years in opposition and at times of influence inside government I remain convinced that freedom of information is still a fight worth fighting. We’ll not win all the battles and we’ll not be able to say “yes” to everything you want, but I think you will find that in the period of this government, freedom of information will be extended and hopefully with it improvements in the Data Protection Act and a greater degree of transparency throughout government”.

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