The Campaign for Freedom of Information today criticised the government’s statement that it would seek to strengthen minister’s powers to veto decisions under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. The announcement was made in a lobby briefing in the run up to today’s publication of Prince Charles’ correspondence with government departments. The material had been sought by the Guardian newspaper under the FOI Act.
The Supreme Court’s ruling on the Prince Charles’ correspondence made clear that ministers could not overrule decisions of the courts or tribunals merely because they disagreed with them: they needed particularly strong reasons for a veto.
The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said:
“When the FOI Bill was passed, parliament assumed the veto could be used against decisions of the Information Commissioner in certain circumstances. The possibility of it being used against a court or tribunal decision, as in the Prince Charles case, was never debated. In that case the Supreme Court ruled ministers must show they are relying on new evidence, an error of law or, at least, have proper grounds for rejecting a court or tribunal’s factual findings, if that was what they were doing. It couldn’t meet any of these tests.
Ministers are now suggesting that they should be able to overturn a judicial decision under the FOI Act simply because they prefer their own view, disregarding the fact that the court may have tested the arguments rigorously and persuasively justified its findings. That is too much power for ministers to have. They should appeal against decisions they disagree with, not simply overturn them.”
The Campaign also pointed out that the Supreme Court had ruled that the ministerial veto could not be used to block the release of environmental information as a veto was incompatible with the EU legislation which underpin that right of access. In the ruling Lord Neuberger, the President of the Supreme Court, also pointed out that there was “a powerful case” for saying that it would be a misuse of the veto to use it against a decision of the Information Commissioner where there was already a right of appeal to the Tribunal.
The Supreme Court’s judgment https://www.supremecourt.uk/decided-cases/docs/UKSC_2014_0137_Judgment.pdf
Maurice Frankel or Katherine Gundersen 0207 490 3958