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FOI review "more about embarrassment than secrecy"

30 November 2015


Former Conservative Shadow Home Secretary David Davis told a meeting called by the Campaign for Freedom of Information today that while Britain had one of the oldest democracies, it had one of the most secretive governments.

Speaking on a platform in the House of Commons with Labour and Liberal Decomcrat spokesmen in support of the CFoI and the #HandsOffFOI campaign launched in October by the Society of Editors with the support of Press Gazette and HoldTheFrontPage,  he added that the current review of the Freedom of Information Act was "more about embarrassment than secrecy". 

While the make-up and terms of reference of the current Commission raised "the suspicion that it was designed to cripple FoI", he said, it was in fact "openess that saves money and saves lives". 

Bob Satchwell, Executive Director of the Society of Editors said there were three fundamental problems to be addressed:

"First it was an indictment of politicians who might want to restrict the Act that the Campaign for Freedom of Information was still needed nearly 20 years after then Prime Minister Tony Blair described the Act as a 'cornerstone of constitutional reform'."

Praising the campaign and its director Maurice Frankel and Research Officer Katherine Gundersen for their magnificent and much-needed work, he said it was a campaign that all thought had been won 20 years ago. 

He added: "The Act has more words about how to avoid requests for information than its real purpose."

He concluded: "Goverment and public bodies seem to want to release information to which the public are entitled only when they are forced to do so. They should set the default switch to releasing everything, unless there was a clear and exceptional reason for doing so. That would bring sunshine and create confidence and respect rather than suspicion and contempt."

According to David Davis, a number of Conservative MPs could be persuaded to oppose proposals to water down the Act if legislation was put to Parliament. He added that the battle against any attempt to water down the legislation was “eminently winnable” and that he considered the legislation the "strongest constitutional legacy" of Tony Blair's government. 

The event, held at the House of Commons and jointly organised by Article 19, also heard from Liberal Democrat peer Lord Tyler and Labour MP Louise Haigh, who was standing in for deputy leader Tom Watson who was busy at a Shadow Cabinet meeting about bombing in Syria.

Haigh confirmed that Labour's own FOI commission will hold three open evidence sessions before Christmas and would seek written evidence and that the legacy of the last Labour government (which introduced the FoI Act ) needed to be protected.

She added: "It improves policy making, reduces waste and improves accountability. In some areas it has led to changes in the culture of government."

David Davis MP, CFoI Director Maurice Frankel and SoE Director Bob Satchwell

David Davis MP, CFoI Director Maurice Frankel and SoE Director Bob Satchwell (Photo reused with the kind permission of the Campaign for Freedom of Information)

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