At the launch event for our new research report into reforming FOI in the UK, we said we would follow up questions after the event. This blog post answers questions that go beyond what we covered in the presentation. The report can be read online or downloaded as a pdf

Is there any reason why the present Westminster govt would want to make any of the proposed changes?  Is there any leverage?

One of the problems with improving transparency is that groups with the most interest in not expanding information rights tend to be those with the power to stop such improvements from happening. Given this, it is an interesting question why FOI laws ever happen in the first place. Dan Berliner tried to answer this question and found that change was most likely in “competitive political environments”, where frequent turnover in office means the benefits of transparency while out of office outweighed the costs while in office. In this framework, transparency comes from commitments made from parties while they were outside government (as was the case in the UK), or by governments who want an insurance policy if they should lose power. This is logical, but does not offer good immediate prospects or next steps.

Our current thinking is to approach this dynamic from a ‘parliament/executive’ angle and to argue that an effective FOI system should be seen as a component of broader anti-corruption work.

We position Parliament as the natural environment of an Information Commissioner because the role of the two institutions in facilitating public scrutiny of the executive can pull together.

While the original white paper cited above did not see a lot of distinction in 1997 between government and parliamentary power (for good reason), more recent experience shows that in the right circumstances Parliament can be a real independent force. Almost half of the period from when the Act came into force in 2005 until 2020 saw periods of minority or coalition control. Our argument that moving oversight of the ICO from the government to Parliament is in this context. Alongside this there’s more to be made of how parliamentarians themselves make use of FOI as a tool, and articulating how MPs/Lords can collectively work to protect and improve the usefulness of that tool.

We also think there is work to be done in making FOI less abstract and connecting a strong FOI system to accepted problems that it can be part of the solution to. For instance, Tortoise’s Chris Cook makes the argument that lobbying reform by tracking lobbyists raises a lot of complicated issues, and it is easier and more effective to have a stronger Freedom of Information process (“rather than trying to make a list of an ever-larger range of suspicious people in the private sector, just make sure that interactions with public authorities are accessible”).  Given this, we’re keeping an eye out for opportunities to feed into lobbying and other future anti-corruption inquiries.

To answer another question asked, there is not an APPG on FOI, but possibly on this logic we don’t want one. What we do want is for members of APPGs in related areas (Anti-Corruption and Responsible Tax, Democracy and the Constitution, Legal and Constitutional Affairs, etc) to see FOI as something that is relevant to issues they care about. Improving FOI is a long game, and for the moment our approach is trying to expand the number of groups that see it as useful for them to protect and improve.

In separating out the two functions of the ICO is there a danger that the Data Protection side will ignore FOI considerations whereas at present the Information Commissioner needs to keep both in mind?

This is one of the reasonable questions to ask about our proposal. Indeed, to have everyone working from the same definition was part of the original justification for joining the roles.

I don’t think we can have an easy “that’s not something to worry about” answer, but the argument we make in the report is that the international standardisation of data protection (and that potential future commissioners are likely to be more familiar with this international system than domestic FOI laws) reduces the extent to which the ‘balance’ of data protection versus disclosure is one resolved by having the two roles in one person. As what data protection means is increasingly defined in standard terms, there is less room for differences in interpretation and so including FOI responsibilities has less of an influence on data protection considerations. This is an area where there’s a lot of space in the middle, but our position is that the original arguments about conflicting definitions of personal information are now resolved through a more widespread standard.

Would it be a good idea to give a better Appeals process from where the ICO refuses things, rather than having to go through an MP to get to the Parliamentary Ombudsman or face a costly Court case?

Don’t have developed thoughts on this one, but we are currently doing a research project investigating how appeals processes work for FOI across Europe, and it is making us appreciate a bit more the benefits of free appeals through the Commissioner in the UK compared to countries where the first remedy is through the courts. Not to say it can’t be improved, but having a free external appeal through the Commissioner (and that decision is then appealable, if not for free) is not bad as things go.

Are you in favour of changing the FOI act to allow for FOI lawsuits, like with the US version?  What about removing the exemptions for the intelligence agencies?  Again, under the US law there are national security exemptions but the agencies themselves are not automatically exempt.

For context, in the US requesters can sue for access to information when the response is not received within the statutory deadline.

For us, the first step is understanding more through statistics about how often the statutory deadline is not met, and in improving the logic of the appeal process through treating lack of response as a refusal. Ideally the FOI system should work without the frequent use of the legal system, and giving up on that is putting FOI beyond the reach of the normal citizen. In the US use of lawsuits seems common enough that they’re a solution for requesters who can pay, but not a good fix to the underlying issue of slow response times.

You also have to be careful how you construct legal processes and incentives. In the Netherlands, the law was constructed for a time so late fines were payable to the requester, creating a perverse incentive to overload authorities with requests.

Not really an answer to the question, but a good time to point out that DARPA (the US organisation that ARIA is based on and that is planned not to be subject to FOI) is subject to FOI.

The reports recommendations would be great, but I was wondering what we as individual requesters can do day to day?

Don’t have a full answer to this and we’re going to do more thinking about how the big picture and day to day come together. In general we think making requests in the open through WhatDoTheyKnow is a good, slow and steady way of demonstrating the value of the legislation by making the results open and accessible, and sharing knowledge about how the FOI process works. (If anyone has the interest, some ways of helping WhatDoTheyKnow more specifically are on the website).

What risk do the speakers think the possible changes to judicial reviews may make? That is a concern in itself, but would it also limit those FOI requests where the government claims exemption on various grounds?

The short answer is ‘probably not a big risk’, but getting to this answer required some thinking (and honestly some more research). The aspect of Freedom of Information that would be most relevant to the areas currently under discussion is the use of the ministerial veto. A Judicial review of the use of the ministerial veto certificate – R (Evans) v Attorney General – implied qualifications on the circumstances the veto could be used, and led to the release of the Prince Charles Letters.

For a brief background on current discussions, the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto said that “[w]e will ensure that judicial review is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays.” The government then commissioned an Independent Review of Administrative Law which reported in early 2021. Generally this concluded that judicial review was functioning well, while recommending some procedural changes. The government is currently consulting on some details of that, but also on areas where the commission did not make strong recommendations.

From an FOI perspective, it is not wrong to pay attention to this review as the Evans case was highlighted. The review specified the Evans case as an example of where “at the least, an argument might have been made that the exercise of that power was non-justiciable or that the power could only be reviewed on the narrowest of grounds”.  The review recommended that courts be given the option of making a “suspended quashing order” – which would come into effect if conditions are not met. The review suggest this approach “might have been useful in the Evans case in allaying governmental concerns created by some of the judgments in that case that no form of legislative words would ever have been accepted as authorising, in a sufficiently clear manner, an Attorney General to ‘overrule a decision of the judiciary because he does not agree with that decision’”. In other words, if the court held that the certificate was not legal, but it was technically possible to produce one in some conditions, time could be given to attempt this. This could make judicial review less useful to pursue, as questioning an invalid decision is less likely to yield a complete reversal.

The review generally favoured giving courts more procedural devices for gentler reconciliations of government and judicial power. The subsequent government consultation is also interested in action on the other end: what can Parliament do to increase the autonomy of the government? One area of interest in the consultation is ouster clauses, where a clause in legislation is used to prevent judicial review of particular acts of the executive. For the purposes of FOI this is potentially a concern as a method of removing judicial review from the use of vetoes, but before this becomes a serious concern it is worth noting (as the Review did) that a previous and more straightforward opportunity to clarify this law was not taken.

The earlier 2016 Independent Review of Freedom of Information had recommended amendments to reassert and clarify the ministerial veto’s scope (“where the executive takes a different view of the public interest in disclosure”) and this was not taken up by the government. This was possibly on the grounds that while solidifying the general right, it also marginally reduces the potential scope of the exemption and most of the problems of potential judicial review were resolvable without doing this. The main objection of the court was that the certificate had insufficient substance to override a court decision and so most of the legal obstacles can be avoided by issuing a certificate before the appeal stage. The government committed to doing this in future. To get back to the original point, if the government is interested in creating tools that reduce the scope of judicial review, these are potentially applicable to FOI but would require legislation to make use of, and if you’re doing that it is probably more robust just to expand the ministerial veto directly.

Another proposed change that could potentially impact FOI is removing the ability to appeal a refusal of a permission to appeal a first tier tribunal decision where the issue is on a matter of law in both cases. Our understanding is that this has not been used in information rights cases (almost all ‘Cart’ appeals are around immigration cases, and those that do not seem to relate to the Ministry of Justice in other respects). A few information rights decisions refer to the potential ability to appeal through this route but indicate a high bar. If anyone knows differently, let us know, but this does not seem likely to lead to a practical change in Information Rights appeals.

Original source – mySociety

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