Freedom of Information (Public Interest and Transparency) Bill
Let me say that I fully support freedom of information, as does the Government. The Government’s aim is to be as open and transparent as possible on the substance of information, consistent with ensuring that a private space is protected for frank advice.
The Bill you refer to has not yet been published, so I’m not aware of its content. It is also very low on the parliamentary schedule for 11 March, so is unlikely to receive its Second Reading on this day. However, I am aware that the Bill intends to remove provisions permitting Ministers to overrule decisions of the Information Commissioner and Information Tribunal.
This refers to the power for a Cabinet Minister or Law Officer to issue a conclusive certificate or ministerial veto. The issue of a certificate must be supported by reasonable grounds, and is open to judicial review. I am assured that the decision is not taken lightly. Indeed, the Government has made clear that the veto should only be used in exceptional circumstances, and only following a collective decision of the Cabinet. As of March 2014, only seven vetoes have been issued.
I am also aware that the Bill seeks to extend the Act to cover private companies contracted to carry out work for public authorities. It is important to note that material held by a private company on behalf of a public authority with which it has a contract is already subject to the Act. Public authorities are also obliged to answer requests about contracts with private providers, although exemptions exist for commercially sensitive material.
I am pleased that the Government has established an independent Commission on Freedom of Information. Citizens should have access to data, and they should know what is done in their name and about the money that is spent in their name, but it is also vital that the conversations between Ministers and civil servants are protected in the interests of good government.