Following the recent consultation by the Scottish Government on the possible extension of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, the Ministry of Justice announced on the 7 January 2011 that it plans to extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 ("FOIA") to open up other bodies to public scrutiny. FOIA covers public bodies operating in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as those which operate on a UK-wide basis.
The government plans to extend the ambit of the legislation to make it easier for people to use FOIA to find and use information about public bodies they rely on and pay taxes for. This will ensure that FOIA will apply to more publicly-funded organisations, allowing for more transparency. The main proposals are to:
- increase the number of organisations to which FOIA requests can be made, bringing in bodies such as the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Financial Services Ombudsman, UCAS and also all companies wholly owned by more than one public authority;
- consult on bringing a range of further bodies which are believed to perform functions of a public nature under the FOIA umbrella, including Examination Boards, the Advertising Standards Authority, Local Government Association, The Panel on Takeovers and Mergers and the NHS Confederation;
- make most public records available at The National Archives and other places of deposit earlier, after 20 years instead of 30 years;
- enhance independence for the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), so it can have more freedom to make day-today corporate and operational decisions; and
- undertake post legislative scrutiny, to see how well FOIA is working in practice and whether there are further changes to be made.
Designation of these organisations as a public authority for the purposes of FOIA would bring not only direct obligations and responsibilities under FOIA, but also disclosure of information requirements under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.
We are already seeing proposals to provide for the greater independence of the ICO. The Protection of Freedoms Bill published in February makes provision for such enhanced independence. In a number of areas the ICO is no longer required to get the approval of the Secretary of State - for example before issuing certain types of code of practice - but must merely consult with her. In addition amendments are made to the provisions relating to the appointment of the Information Commissioner. The changes will limit the ability of the Secretary of State to remove the Information Commisioner from office unless one of certain specified grounds applies.
In addition provision is made for the FOIA to cover information held by companies which are wholly owned by two or more public authorities. Finally there are new provisions under FOIA in relation to publication of datasets.
We go into the detail of the rest of this Bill elsewhere in this bulletin. We will keep readers informed of the outcome of these proposals and of any consultations on any of the other areas mentioned above.