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Fight plans to water-down FoI, digital chief urges journalists

David-Higgerson-Pic-e14180431184192A regional publisher’s digital chief has urged journalists to fight a new government commission which he believes could deliver a “devastating blow” to freedom of information.

David Higgerson, left, Trinity Mirror’s digital publishing director, has attacked the new Commission on Freedom of Information as an “all out assault on the public’s right to know”.

The commission is set to review the Freedom of Information Act to consider whether it offers an appropriate public interest balance between transparency, accountability and the need for sensitive information to have robust protection.

An announcement by the Cabinet Office says it will consider the balance between the need to maintain public access to information, the burden of the Act on public authorities and whether change is needed to moderate that while maintaining public access to information.

However, in a post on his personal blog, David has set out his argument against the need for a review.

He says the desire for a “safe space” for civil servants worried about communications on policy development becoming public knowledge already exists because governments have the right to refuse FoI requests which conflict with the formulation of policy – further arguing that a commission is not needed in order to make the public sector more transparent.

Wrote David: “It shouldn’t be a surprise that a government is planning to deliver what could be a devastating blow to the Freedom of Information Act. It probably should be a surprise, however, that it has taken so long.

“The government argues it wants to be the most transparent in the world. Noble aim, but the commission proves it’s probably just words.

“If it really wished to be the most transparent in the world, it would tell civil servants and politicians that their advice, memos, reports, minutes or whatever will most likely be published if someone asks for them – but that names and any references to who they are will be redacted.

“Is that really so bad? What are these civil servants thinking which makes them worried about being associated with their thoughts?”

The cross-party panel will be chaired by Lord Burns, and will comprise former Labour grandee Jack Straw, former Tory leader Lord Howard, Lib Dem peer Lord Carlile and ex-BBC boss Dame Patricia Hodgson.

Added David:  “Make no mistake, this isn’t a tweak or a change, it’s an all out assault on the public’s right to know – and journalists everywhere need to fight back.”

The Campaign for the Freedom of Information’s director Maurice Frankel has also criticised the panel, which appears to be heavily weighted towards opponents of FoI.

He said: “The government is clearly proposing to crack down on FoI. Ministers want certainty that policy discussions will not only take place in secret but be kept secret afterwards.

“They don’t like the fact that the Act requires the case for confidentiality to be weighed against the public interest in disclosure.

“If that balancing test is removed mistakes, bad decisions and policy failures caused by deliberately ignoring the evidence will be concealed for 20 years.”