Select Committee on Public Administration Memoranda


MEMORANDUM 27

Submitted by The Children's Society

  We welcome this opportunity to contribute to the Select Committee on Public Administration's inquiry into the above draft Bill. We regret that we have not responded as fully as we might have liked, but have instead confined our comments to specific concerns as these arise from our work with disadvantaged families and children.

  We welcome the Bill's introduction of a statutory public right to freedom of information as a significant step forward in promoting local and central government accountability. However, we draw attention to the following concerns:

THE PROCESS OF OBTAINING KNOWLEDGE AND ACCESSING RELEVANT RECORDS AND DOCUMENTATION THAT MAY BE HELD BY PUBLIC AUTHORITIES

  For example, in our opinion, many school and LEA panels on admissions or exclusions are not seen to be independent, impartial and operated on principles of natural justice by many groups of parents who are trying to obtain a school place for a child. This is particularly true for parents of children with special educational needs, asylum-seekers, and homeless families where only schools can suddenly become "full" overnight, with few parents being informed of their right to appeal against a negative decision on an application for a school place for their child.

THE IMPACT OF A FLAT RATE FEE FOR OBTAINING AND ACCESSING RECORDS

  This will prohibit many low-income families from accessing vital records that will impact on their lives. Fees should be tapered to take into account differing circumstances of the populace.

THE INTERFACE IN PRACTICE BETWEEN THE BILL'S PROPOSALS WITH OTHER GOVERNMENT LEGISLATION, IN PARTICULAR THE IMMIGRATION AND ASYLUM BILL

The timescale involved in accessing information

  We would point to potential incongruities between the Bill and other legislation, such as the Immigration and Asylum Bill. For example, immigration officers and constables will have a significant increase in power to arrest and detail asylum seekers without a warrant (clause 40). This could be based on any "reasonable grounds for suspecting [the asylum seeker] has committed or attempted to commit that offence." (clause 119). This far-reaching power must be tempered with appropriate safeguards, of which freedom to access the basis on which such an action is taken is an integral component and subject to review.

  The need for immediate accountability within public services for such actions is of particular importance, in the light of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) targets to complete initial decisions on asylum claims within two months, appeals within four months. Also the onus that will be placed as a result of the Bill on the asylum seeker to submit all relevant information to IND within five days. Public confidence in IND will only be restored by transparent decision making, and the application of the same exacting standards required of asylum claimants to submit and provide information upon request. This will mean that asylum-seekers will need prompt access to information held on their asylum claim, both before initial decision and pending appeal, in order to prepare their case.

  At present, it is frequent practice for asylum claim decisions to be based on reasons such as the "information available to the Secretary of State" and "the Secretary of State has caused inquiries to be made". . . . The process and basis on which such information is obtained should be open to public scrutiny, if necessary through judicial review of its content.

The exemption of certain key agencies such as the police from the provisions of the Bill

  We would point to the recommendations of the Macpherson report following the Steven Lawrence Inquiry that stated explicitly that a FOI act "should apply to all areas of policing, both operational and administrative, subject only to the "substantial harm test" for withholding disclosure" (Recommendation 9).

The principle of governmental accountability to be monitored as a necessary precondition of legislative proposals and future practical implementation

  If, as the Secretary of State has stressed, the FOI Act is to be a genuine development in promoting governmental accountability, then this principle should be maintained at all stages of implementation. This should extend from the impartial appointment of a Commissioner, who is independent from government to the use of a "substantial harm test" (as opposed to a mere "harm test") as the basis for exemption from FOI provisions.

  We wish the Committee every success in its inquiry on the draft Bill on Freedom of Information, and would be delighted to provide further information as necessary.

July 1999





 
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