This letter by the Campaign was published by The Guardian on 18 July 2012, in response to an article by the commentator Simon Jenkins.
Simon Jenkins takes a hefty swing at the Freedom of Information Act on the grounds that its “total disclosure” damages good government. (For the digital revolution, this is the Robespierre moment, 10 July). But there is no “total disclosure” under FOI as anyone who has grappled with the act’s 13 pages of exemptions knows.
The act exempts information where disclosure is likely to be harmful and/or contrary to the public interest. It permits a ministerial veto over any order to disclose in the public interest. Some information is exempt regardless of harm or public interest.
Jenkins claims the level of disclosure extends to “even the most personal communication between individuals”. It does not. Personal information, about family matters for example, is vigorously protected. But officials cannot circumvent FoI by discussing government business via personal email accounts.
He says the public interest test removes the “safe space” between ministers and officials and argues that “documents must be able to stay private prior to policy being concluded”. He seems unaware that this is already done: the leading tribunal case held that “disclosure of discussions of policy options, whilst policy is in the process of formulation, is highly unlikely to be in the public interest unless, for example, it would expose wrongdoing..Ministers and officials are entitled to time and space…to hammer out policy by exploring safe and radical options alike, without the threat of lurid headlines depicting that which has been merely broached as agreed policy.”.
He cites Jack Straw and the former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell on the effect of “total disclosure” on policy-making. But they are not seeking to withhold policy discussions until a final decision. They want absolute protection for 20 years afterwards, regardless of any public interest in improving public understanding, holding government to account or learning from past mistakes.
Lord McNally, the FoI minister, is more sceptical. He told the select committee reviewing FoI that O’Donnell had been “an immensely powerful figure … parliamentarians should question whether figures of that power should be completely protected by a cloak of secrecy”. There has been “an over-claiming” for the so called “chilling effect” of disclosure, he added.
The attorney general, Dominic Grieve, told the committee he was not seeking an absolute exemption even for cabinet minutes. He noted “there may at times be good arguments for cabinet minutes to be revealed”, particularly older material. The current arrangements provide an opportunity “to reveal some things that might not otherwise ever be revealed “The question then is whether it will lead to some serious mischief. At the moment I have not seen that.”
So ministers defend FoI while a leading Guardian columnist attacks it. Who’d have believed it?