Proposed anonymous use of evidence by the Commission on FOI criticised

UPDATE 28/10/15: Lord Burns has replied to the Campaign’s letter below. The reply says that the statement was only intended to imply that individual contributions would be anonymised. The Commission has now removed the statement and promised it will publish the evidence it receives. 

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has written to Lord Burns, chair of the Commission on Freedom of Information, expressing concern at the Commission’s proposal to anonymise any evidence that it cites in its report.

The Commission is considering a series of possible restrictions to the Freedom of Information Act. Its consultation document states “Contributions to the consultation will be anonymised if they are quoted”.

The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel has written to Lord Burns saying:

“It is one thing to undertake to protect the identity of individuals responding in a personal capacity – though most would probably be happy to be identified if asked. It is quite another to obscure the identity of public authorities or others on whose evidence the Commission has relied in drawing up its proposals.

The Commission’s approach would be difficult to justify in any public policy review. For a report dealing with and likely to recommend restrictions to the Freedom of Information Act it is extraordinarily inappropriate. If the Commission cannot recognise the need for openness in its own report there is little chance of it appreciating the value of the FOI Act in promoting greater openness elsewhere.

This also calls into question whether the Commission is capable of properly addressing the balancing exercise set out in its terms of reference which require it to consider “whether there is an appropriate public interest balance between transparency, accountability and the need for sensitive information to have robust protection’. (my emphasis)

The case for attributing evidence is that it will promote rigour by those making submissions and by the Commission in drawing on them. It will allow the public and Parliament to assess and if necessary challenge any cited evidence in light of their own knowledge of the bodies and circumstances. It is an essential safeguard against inaccuracy, exaggeration or misrepresentation.”

The letter cites the example of a local authority which published inflated figures about the volume and cost of FOI requests it received and of authorities which have refused requests as ‘vexatious’ only for the Information Commissioner or Tribunal to rule that the problem had been caused by their own unreasonable behaviour. The letter says that for the Commission to cite evidence from such authorities anonymously could mislead the public.

Further information:

Maurice Frankel or Katherine Gundersen 0207 324 2519

Notes:

1. The Campaign’s letter is here.
2. The Commission’s proposed anonymous use of evidence is set out in its consultation document (bottom of p.5) available from:
www.gov.uk/government/consultations/independent-commission-on-freedom-of-information-call-for-evidence

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