UK

Freedom of Information review panel criticised

Filing cabinet Image copyright Thinkstock

Campaigners have criticised the panel chosen to scrutinise the workings of the Freedom of Information Act.

The Cabinet Office announced on Friday that two former home secretaries and a retired senior civil servant would sit on the five-member committee.

But the Campaign for Freedom of Information says the panel does not include any advocates for transparency.

The review was launched amid concerns within government that "sensitive information" was not being protected.

The panel includes former Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard, some of whose decisions in government were disclosed using the act and Labour's Jack Straw, who helped draft the original law but has since openly criticised FOIs.

'Safe space'

The campaigners say an FOI request to the Foreign Office seeking information about UK involvement in the rendition of a terror suspect relates to the period when Mr Straw was foreign secretary.

Another committee member, Lord Burns, was the most senior civil servant in the Treasury between 1991 and 1998. The civil service is known to have misgivings about the act.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information said no-one on the panel had a previous record of having benefitted from the openness the act provides, while the UKIP MP Douglas Carswell said the review was a "fix" because the panel consisted of people who had "made their careers by toadying up to the establishment".

Image copyright PA
Image caption Prince Charles's private letters to government were made public after an FOI request by the Guardian newspaper

The passing of the Freedom of Information Act in 2000, which gave anyone the right to access recorded information held by government and other public sector bodies, is regarded by many as one of the landmark achievements of the last Labour government.

It obliged public authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and UK-wide authorities based in Scotland, to publish certain information about their activities.

But former Prime Minister Tony Blair has since described the law as one of his "biggest regrets", arguing it has had the effect of denying civil servants a "safe space" to properly advise ministers for fear their conversations will later become public.

It has been used to reveal information in a number of high profile incidents including the MPs expenses scandal, Prince Charles's lobbying letters to ministers and Friday's revelation that British pilots had been taking part in air strikes in Syria.

Cabinet Office minister Lord Bridges said: "We fully support the Freedom of Information Act but after more than a decade in operation it is time that the process is reviewed to make sure it's working effectively."

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