Select Committee on Public Administration Third Report


"Our experience over the past twelve months is that FOI is proving a powerful catalyst and support for change in the public service. FOI goes to the heart of unduly centralised decision making and insufficiently developed administrative systems. It creates direct and sustained pressure to reform and improve public service practices.

I might mention just a few instances of such reform which has been facilitated by FOI:

·    Open access to current personnel records is now the norm,

·    Improved recruitment and promotion practices are being adopted,

·    Public procurement practices are being further developed so as to provide better quality information to unsuccessful tenders and to the public,

·    Financial management practices are being reviewed.

In a nutshell, FOI is much more than just the provision of information by public bodies. It is proving itself as a key support for bringing about profound change and improvement in our public services".

Martin Cullen, TD, Minister of State, Department of Finance, Republic of Ireland, on 24 March 1999.

158. We welcome the fact that the Government has converted its commitment to Freedom of Information legislation into a draft Bill. We particularly welcome the opportunity afforded by the draft Bill procedure to improve the scrutiny of proposed legislation and thereby to secure better Bills. The Home Secretary has made it clear to us that this is his approach to our examination of the draft Freedom of Information Bill and we have sought to respond in a positive and constructive way.

159. Our general welcome for the Bill is accompanied by some important criticisms of its present form. Some of these criticisms are fundamental ones, because they turn on the key principles of good freedom of information legislation, while others are significant but less fundamental. We have identified those provisions in the Bill which we believe need recasting. When the fundamental ones are attended to, this will immediately have the effect of strengthening the presumption in favour of disclosure and leave no doubt about the underlying character of the Bill. In terms of the distinction we have sought to make, the move from Open Government to Freedom of Information would be complete. Once this rebalancing is done, in relation to the key features we have identified, then the subsidiary matters become easier to deal with.

160. This Bill is of historic significance. Not only does it represent the fulfilment of a long-standing commitment , but it marks the moment when the culture of secrecy in Britain is finally broken. That, at least, is the potential contained within the proposed legislation. For that potential to be realised, we believe that the draft Bill needs to be amended, and strengthened, in the ways that we have recommended. This can readily be done. It requires only the combination of political will and the draftsman's pen. The result would be a Freedom of Information Bill that could stand comparison with best international practice. A failure to make the draft Bill better, as we have proposed, would represent a missed opportunity of historic proportions. We are confident, from the evidence we have heard, that the opportunity will be taken.

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Prepared 29 July 1999