Information commissioner tells Tom Watson’s review that Conservatives are risking a return to ‘private government’
Exempting advice given to ministers from freedom of information requests risks returning the UK to the “dark ages” of “private government”, the information commissioner has warned. Christopher Graham told a review into the legislation that changes to FoI being considered by a government commission could lead to a blanket ban on all advice being made available to the public.
“The danger is the Whitehall machine might run more smoothly, [but] you are back to that world of private government which I don’t think fits with the 21st century,” Graham told the review, led by Labour deputy leader Tom Watson. “FoI is the price you pay for being a modern, accountable and efficient government in the 21st century.”
Details of advice given to ministers can be withheld if it is deemed in the public interest to do so, but part of the government review is considering whether ministers need a “safe space” to discuss policy with advisers.
The commission has been criticised for its membership, some of whom are on the record as having criticised FoI, and for holding private briefings and hearings. Watson’s review, which was set up in response to the commission, is holding public hearings. Though it is led by Labour, it has support from members of other parties, including the Conservative MP David Davis.
Campaigners for freedom of information, including Davis, think parliament is unlikely to approve any changes to the act. However, there are concerns that the government could try to water it down by introducing measures, such as fees for requests, that do not need to go before parliament. Graham said any attempt to introduce charges could “only be seen as a disincentive” to dissuade requests.
Watson’s review has said it will look at ways the act could be strengthened, including extending it to cover private contractors delivering public services. Graham said the act should “absolutely” be extended to make private contractors more accountable to the public, in part because so many more services traditionally considered within the public realm were now delivered by private companies.
He said: “I think it is absolutely essential that, as more and more services are provided by private contractors, we have to be clear about there being no less accountability.”
The Information Commissioner’s Office is proposing a range of measures that would open up private contractors to the public, including writing commitments to transparency into contracts and designating larger long-term providers as public bodies for the purposes of the act.
Graham rejected comments by the leader of the House of Commons, Chris Grayling, to the effect that journalists were misusing the act to generate stories. He said: “Journalists will always give you a hard time, but that’s just life.”