The Campaign for Freedom of Information expressed concern at today’s Commons statement by the Justice Secretary Michael Gove saying that the government would “revisit” the Freedom of Information Act to ensure that civil servants’ advice to ministers was protected so they could “speak candidly”.
The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said:
“the Information Commissioner and Tribunal already take steps to ensure that advice is protected where disclosure would harm the public interest. But it does not adopt a blanket approach. Mr Gove should know this: earlier this year the Tribunal ruled that the advice he had received as Education Secretary before cancelling Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme should not be disclosed. Releasing it would expose the working relationship between ministers and officials and undermine the future provision of frank advice, it said. But in other cases it has ordered disclosure, particularly where the advice is anodyne or old or the arguments for confidentiality are implausible.”
The Campaign warned that Mr Gove’s comments suggest that he is planning to significantly restrict the FOI Act. It highlighted his suggestion that what the public need is access to “data” for example on public spending rather than information on how decisions have been reached. “The public needs both and the Act provides a vital element of scrutiny which should not be weakened” said Mr Frankel.
Notes: Mr Gove’s comments were made during justice questions in the House of Commons on 23 June 2015 in response to questions from Chi Onwurah (Labour), Corri Wilson (SNP) and Tom Brake (Lib Dem). Mr Gove said:
 The Tribunal’s ruling in the case of Department for Education & Information Commissioner (EA/2014/0079), is here.
“I think we do need to revisit the Freedom of Information Act. It is absolutely vital that we ensure that the advice that civil servants give to Ministers of whatever Government is protected so that civil servants can speak candidly and offer advice in order to ensure that Ministers do not make mistakes. There has been a worrying tendency in our courts and elsewhere to erode the protections for that safe space for policy advice, and I think it absolutely needs to be asserted. There is no contradiction between making sure that we give civil servants the protection they deserve and also ensuring that the data—for example, the amount we spend in any Government Department—are more transparent than ever.”
“We want to review the operation of the original Freedom of Information Act. Some of the judgments that have been made have actually run contrary to the spirit of the original Act, and some of those behind the original Act, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Home Secretary who introduced the legislation, Jack Straw, have been very clear about the defects in the way in which the Act has operated. It is vital that we get back to the founding principles of freedom of information. Citizens should have access to data and they should know what is done in their name and about the money that is spent in their name, but it is also vital that the conversations between Ministers and civil servants are protected in the interests of good government.”
“It is absolutely right that people should know who Ministers meet and which lobby groups and others take up ministerial time, but I hope the right hon. Gentleman would agree that it is vital that we protect civil servants by making sure that they can give full and frank advice. Sometimes, as well as respecting transparency, we have to respect confidentiality. We have a duty of care towards those in the civil service who do such a good job of supporting Ministers.”
Update 6/7/15: Read more about the restrictions the government is likely to be considering.