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Wills defends the Queen

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Martin Rosenbaum | 08:50 UK time, Monday, 4 January 2010

Five years - that's what we've had so far of freedom of information in the UK, since it came into force on 1 January 2005. And one person who's convinced that the law is working well is Michael Wills, the justice minister responsible for FOI policy.

Michael Wills"We're celebrating five years of what has been historic legislation," he told me a few days ago when I interviewed him at the Ministry of Justice. "It's a massive cultural change, and I've always believed it will be seen in retrospect as a huge shift in the way government does business."

Of course not everyone else is so positive. But half a decade into FOI, his message to civil servants is that they shouldn't worry about it; to local authorities that some of them need to take openness more seriously; to requesters that they mustn't be over-zealous; and as for the Queen, she can rely on the government to protect her constitutional position.

Mr Wills was also keen to counter the critics of freedom of information within government, many of whom regard it simply as a device that produces inconvenience and embarrassment without bringing any credit in return. For him, FOI releases often show how well government is working.

The publication in 2007 of the advice given to Gordon Brown before he changed the rules on dividend taxation in the 1997 Budget is, according to Mr Wills, "a very good example". It followed an FOI request from the Times, which the government initially resisted before giving in amid much publicity .

"I remember the Conservative Party being cock-a-hoop because they were absolutely sure this would reveal some sort of smoking gun," he said. "What it actually revealed were Treasury officials working through all the options extremely conscientiously and rigorously, and ministers making a considered decision on the basis of all the options and facts."

"Government is full of decent-minded people trying to do their best, and when that becomes transparent, actually people gain from that. There was no political damage to the government at all - people could see what their government was doing and that is one of the great advantages of FOI," he added. (Although from the reporting of this release, you can understand why some of his colleagues might have taken a different view).

Within the government machine, much of the unease about freedom of information has focused on the supposed "chilling effect" - the idea that the prospect of disclosure will deter the giving and recording of frank advice and opinion.

Mr Wills hasn't found this to be a problem. "I haven't noticed the chilling effect. It doesn't mean that it doesn't exist, and it doesn't mean that it's not a risk that we have to be careful about, but the honest answer is 'no', as far as I personally am concerned."

While Mr Wills maintains that FOI has shifted the culture of central government, even if he accepts that it is still incomplete and developing, he argues that some local authorities have yet to adapt. "Outside central government the picture is patchier," he told me:

"There are really good local authorities that are able to put out almost everything the citizen could want quickly, cheaply and efficiently, because they see it as a core part of their relationship with those they serve. Others don't and those authorities are not providing the service that their voters expect. Some local authorities see this as an add-on but it isn't, and that culture has to change."

Mr Wills thinks that the new Information Commissioner Chris Graham has been making "significant progress" in tackling his office's backlog of complaints. "We've been providing extra funding in very difficult economic circumstances to help with that process, and that's an indication of how seriously we take the work of that office."

The minister couldn't make any promises about funding in the future, but did say that Whitehall would continue to assist the ICO's staffing by providing secondees.

Mr Wills also hopes that increasing the promptness and responsiveness of the FOI system will influence the behaviour of requesters.

"There's always a risk that a small number of people dig in and pursue things perhaps over-zealously. I hope that requesters will become more respectful of the spirit of the legislation rather than assuming wrongly they can have all the information they want. The quicker we get the responses out, the more chance we have of developing a culture like that. Most people are reasonable. If they get a reasonable explanation quickly, I hope they will be satisfied by that."

The minister told me that the government would soon be issuing its formal response to the Dacre review of the thirty-year-rule for the release in the National Archives of most official papers. "It's a very good report, commissioned by the prime minister, so we obviously feel there is a need to move in this area. 30 years is too long."

The QueenBut this also raises the issue of whether cabinet and royal papers should have a period of absolute exemption from FOI. Mr Wills would not reveal the government's detailed position in advance, but did insist that the monarchy does need sheltering from FOI:

"One thing we have to recognise is the special position of the head of state, given that they last longer than 'here today, gone tomorrow' politicians. Particularly if we are to keep the specific constitutional role of the monarch inviolate, which I think the majority of the British people want, there has to special protection for the monarch."

On cabinet papers his answer was "wait and see". He argued that the government had been right to use the ministerial veto twice last year to block the release of cabinet minutes, maintaining that "cabinet collective responsibility is at the very heart of the government of this country and it's got to be protected", although every case would have to be decided on its own individual circumstances.

The Ministry of Justice will keep under review the question of whether to extend FOI to more private bodies with public functions beyond those already announced [226Kb PDF], and if the Scottish government wants to go further in this direction than the rest of the UK, that's fine with Mr Wills.

For Michael Wills, five years of freedom of information has meant that "huge amounts of information has been released which wouldn't otherwise have been available". He added: "Most requests are satisfied. Of course, it's uncomfortable and tough for government, but that doesn't negate the value of the legislation."

In his view, there's probably only one group of people which will give the government the credit he thinks it deserves for what he regards as this "landmark legislation" - historians. Their verdict, whichever way it goes, will come in later than that of the voters.


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