For much of the year, the House of Commons Justice Committee has been conducting a post-legislative review of the Freedom of Information Act, its work taking place in the face of a concerted effort by the bureaucracy to push it into accepting the idea that the Act should be neutered.
The review has now ground to a conclusion, and the news is, on the whole quite good. For example, from the recommendations comes the welcome news that the committee favours a tightening of the legal ramifications for breaches of the Act.
The summary only nature of the section 77 offence means that no one has been prosecuted for destroying or altering disclosable data, despite the Information Commissioner’s Office seeing evidence that such an offence has occurred. We recommend that section 77 be made an either way offence which will remove the limitation period from charging. We also recommend that, where such a charge is heard in the Crown Court, a higher fine than the current £5000 be available to the court. We believe these amendments to the Act will send a clear message to public bodies and individuals contemplating criminal action.
However, one of the other recommendations is less obviously welcome, with the committee concluding that England and Wales adopt the Scottish approach to research data. This allows exemption under two different grounds - a narrow one and a broad one. The narrow exemption is for data held for future publication, the narrowness coming from the requirement that the publication date cannot be more than 12 weeks in the future. The broader, and therefore much more worrying, exemption is for data held as part of an ongoing research programme. I'm not sure that this doesn't allow those who would rather their research was not examined by outsiders simply to say that they are still using the data and that it cannot therefore be disclosed.
The whole of the university sector seems to have been keen to get a much broader exemption in place. One submission of evidence, from Universities UK is a particularly interesting case in point, which shows that those champions of openness, the IPCC, have also been taking an interest.
[...] evidence of commercial partners being put off working with UK institutions is largely anecdotal. However, in a case involving the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) recently settled by the Information Commissioner for drafts of a published paper, the University of East Anglia highlighted that:
In another matter, we recently received exactly such representations from the IPCC TSU [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Technical Support Unit] based in Geneva, Switzerland in which they explicitly noted that release of such material would “[...] force us to reconsider our working arrangements with those experts who have been selected for an active role in WG1 AR5 [Working Group One, Fifth Assessment Report] from your institution and others within the United Kingdom.”