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Revealed: Plans for extending FOI

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Martin Rosenbaum | 20:33 UK time, Thursday, 6 January 2011

The Bar Council, the Law Society and the Takeover Panel are some of the organisations which the government is planning to bring within the scope of freedom of information.

The Ministry of Justice will announce on Friday details of dozens of bodies which perform public functions that it wants to bring under Freedom of Information (FOI), so that people will have a legal right of access to information they hold.

The list will contain a range of organisations that have legal responsibilities to regulate parts of the private sector, as well as appeals tribunals for parking fines and some state-funded environmental projects. However freedom of information campaigners will be disappointed that, contrary to many expectations, Network Rail is not to be included.

I understand that bodies to be covered include the following:

the Law Society and the Bar Council, which regulate the legal profession;

the Advertising Standards Authority, which regulates the advertising industry;

the Panel on Takeover and Mergers, which regulates City takeovers;

the Quality Assurance Agency, which monitors standards in higher education;

the British Standards Institute, which develops and certifies industry standards;

the Independent Schools Inspectorate, the Schools Inspection Service, and the Bridge School Inspectorate - inspection services for private schools;

the Traffic Penalty Tribunal and the Parking and Traffic Appeals Service, which hears appeals against parking fines;

the Carbon Trust and the Energy Saving Trust - publicly funded green initiatives;

the Local Government Association and the NHS Confederation, as associations of public authorities already covered.

The government will begin consultations with the bodies involved with a view to bringing them under the FOI.

The Ministry of Justice will also confirm it is pressing ahead with extending FOI to three organisations previously indicated, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Financial Services Ombudsman and the higher education admissions body UCAS.

However this does not amount to the "hundreds" of additional public and charitable bodies that have been trailed in some reports.

And there are some notable exclusions. Before the election, both coalition parties pledged to extend FOI to Network Rail. According to a Ministry of Justice spokesperson, the government accepts "there is a strong case for its inclusion". But she added that ministers want to wait for a Department for Transport review of the structure of the rail industry before proceeding.

The government also has no plans to extend FOI to private utility and water companies, although whether they might be brought under the regulations that provide for disclosure of environmental information is less clear.

The plans to be unveiled on Friday will not go as far as some ideas proposed by the Liberal Democrats when in opposition, such as repealing the right of ministers to veto tribunal decisions instructing them to release material they want to keep secret.

Ministers will now implement plans to reduce to 20 years the 30-year rule which governs when most historical records are made publicly available in the National Archives. This will be phased in over a decade, starting in 2013, with two years' worth of records being transferred each year until the process is complete.

While these changes extend information rights, the government will also bring into force a measure to give the monarchy greater protection from FOI, with an absolute exemption for communications with the monarch and the heir to the throne.

Along with the reduction in the 30-year rule, this was included in last year's Constitutional Reform and Governance Act and was awaiting implementation.

In another reform, the Information Commissioner will be given greater autonomy on operational matters such as appointing staff. However this does not go as far as making the post report to Parliament rather than the Ministry of Justice, the level of independence which Chris Graham, the commissioner, has called for.

Nevertheless Mr Graham will welcome this limited increase in autonomy and the overall package of government measures as a boost for greater transparency.

Public authorities will also be required to proactively release data in a way that facilitates businesses as well as non-profit organisations re-using the information for commercial and social purposes.

All these steps may also be followed by further changes to the freedom of information system later.

The government will also announce that it will now undertake a further review of the Freedom of Information Act during 2011. A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said this will "cover the benefits brought by the legislation, how it is working in practice and an assessment of the costs of the operation of the Act."

She added: "We will be considering the way in which all exemptions function as part of our review of the Act. We have no intention to increase protection for Cabinet minutes at present."


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