Select Committee on Public Administration Memoranda


Submitted by the CBI

  The CBI welcomes the opportunity to make preliminary observations on the draft Freedom of Information Bill. We support the Bill's aim to increase openness and accountability in government and public bodies. The Bill addresses and resolves a number of the concerns that we expressed in our response to the consultation on the White Paper, particularly with regard to commercial interests and information provided in confidence. We outline below our views on the principal issues raised in the draft Bill, and shall be making more detailed submissions to the Home Office at the end of the consultative period.

    —  We are concerned that there should be greater transparency about which public authorities are to be brought within the ambit of the new legislation. At least all the main regulatory bodies should be included within the Bill at the outset.

    —  We support the proposal by Clifford Chance that the Bill should open with a "purpose clause" making it quite clear that the underlying objective is to facilitate public access to information held by public authorities. We agree that, as the Bill contains many restrictions and exemptions, there is a real risk that otherwise emphasis is likely to be placed on finding reasons to block disclosure.

    —  We endorse the appointment of an Information Commissioner and the creation of a new Tribunal. We believe that the intention to merge the functions of the Information Commissioner with those of the new Data Protection Commissioner will add clarity and consistency to both regimes.

    —  We welcome the obligation on public authorities to adopt and maintain an appropriate scheme on the publication of information. We think that there is some merit in public authorities allowing access to categories of information held, other than those in exempt categories. This could be done through the model publication schemes.

    —  Adequate safeguards for the protection of third parties affected by the disclosure of information must be put in place. They should have rights of appeal directly to the Commissioner or to the Tribunal against decisions to release information which they believe would prejudice their interests. They should also be informed and given the opportunity to make representations before a decision to release information is made.

    —  The ability of a public authority to make discretionary disclosures of information in the public interest even when an exemption applies should not extend to information relating to commercial interests. Information could be collected or generated by a government department about a company which could be prejudicial to the commercial interests of that company. This kind of information should be excluded from the discretionary disclosure provision. We think it would be useful to have further guidance on how "public interest" will be interpreted.

    —  We think that "commercial interests" and "trade secret" need to be defined. We wish to reiterate the comments made in our response to the White Paper, that information generated by a business as a result of internal debate, planning and consideration of proposals should not fall within the public domain.

    —  We are concerned that the scope of some of the exemptions are too broad, including the exemption on decision-making and policy formulation. We think that factual information and background papers that inform policy considerations should normally be available, at least once decisions have been taken.

    —  The proposed functions of the Secretary of State, Lord Chancellor, and Information Commissioner are broadly acceptable. We would recommend that before issuing codes of practice, the Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor should be obliged to consult interested parties. We believe it is essential that interested parties should also be consulted before the Secretary of State exercises his order making powers under clause 65.

    —  We welcome the Secretary of State's intention to carry out a regulatory impact assessment before exercising his order-making powers to bring private sector bodies within the ambit of the new legislation. We await a cost impact statement indicating how much it will cost the Government to implement the new legislation.

    —  We support the proposal by Clifford Chance, to introduce a new clause giving all companies the right to "access any factual information held by a public authority about that company, and the right to correct inaccurate information". We agree that these rights should be modelled on those enjoyed by individuals under the Data Protection Act and be subject to the same safeguards and exemptions.

June 1999

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