The UK Government is refusing to release information regarding how candidates were chosen for a Commission which is considering reform of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
Ministers announced in July this year that they had established an “independent, cross-party Commission on Freedom of Information” to consider whether changes were needed to protect “policy development.”
However, the Commission has since faced criticism because it includes figures such as Jack Straw, who have publicly argued for the restriction of the FOI Act, but no known advocates of freedom of information.
Legal charity Reprieve sought disclosure under FOI from the Cabinet Office of whether there was a short-listing process to choose Commissioners, what their names were, and who was responsible for making the final selection of the panel. However, the request was refused in total on the grounds of ‘data protection’ — an exception that is not generally considered to apply to the identities of senior public figures.
The Cabinet Office’s denial extends to refusing to disclose which figures within Government made the decision on the panel’s membership, or the process by which that decision was made — neither of which can be seen to have any component involving personal data for the purposes of the FOI Act.
Reprieve has previously used FOI to uncover information relating to UK involvement in covert drone strikes and the CIA’s torture programme, and is concerned that any watering down of the Act would restrict the public’s ability to hold the Government accountable for serious human rights abuses.
Commenting, Donald Campbell, head of communications at Reprieve said: “The Government’s unjustified secrecy around how it selected members of the Freedom of Information Commission will only fuel concerns that it has been set up with the aim of weakening the public’s right to know.
“FOI is a vital tool for keeping our political masters honest. Any discussion about changes to FOI powers should therefore take place in an open manner, with full public engagement. It is therefore deeply disappointing that the Government is instead pursuing a process which appears to be a stitch-up, taking place behind closed doors — and using spurious reasons to keep its workings hidden from public view.”