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FoI: from the topline to the subtext

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At the end of last year the government responded to the justice select committee’s report on how the Freedom of Information Act was working. The committee had taken the view that the act was generally working well.

The fear was that the government, a little less enthusiastic about FoI, would try to cut back or undermine the legislation. On the surface it was upbeat about FoI, but there might be danger in the detail.

In its response, the government made positive noises. It felt FoI was a powerful democratic tool. It even felt it helped build public trust, something neither the justice committee nor those who work in local government are convinced about. It did not suggest introducing an upfront application fee.

In fact, it went further. It pledged to consult another 200 private bodies doing public work, with a view to their “possible inclusion in relation to functions of a public nature that they perform” by 2015.

Local government would be a central player in any such move. This could close the ‘accountability gap’ between the public and private sectors.

The big question is whether the government has the will to push this FoI extension. The Scottish and UK governments have tried to extend coverage of private bodies before, often justifying it by highlighting the current non-inclusion of local bodies such as housing associations or leisure centres.

But they have always stalled at two key arguments: that it is not necessary (companies are already open) and it is costly (red tape). Any government would need a powerful argument to override these.

So is the devil in the detail? The government suggested there might be ways to change how FoI ‘costs’ are calculated. It said it was minded to include other activities in calculations of costs.

Adding more activities to what is counted could mean many more requests hit the ceiling. It could be seen as stifling the act. There are other hints about changing how a request is defined, which could have an effect on what is considered a request or not.

Governments are always uneasy about FoI and become less enthusiastic over time. This government’s view of FoI is a little more complicated than it looks. It is promising things it probably won’t carry out while subtly suggesting changes it probably will.

Ben Worthy, freedom of information expert and lecturer, Birkbeck College, University of London

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