Justice Secretary Michael Gove's FoI plans would 'significantly restrict' act, campaigners warn

A campaign group has accused Justice Secretary Michael Gove of attempting to "significantly restrict" the Freedom of Information Act.

It emerged yesterday that the Government plans to make sure confidential advice given to ministers by civil servants is protected from publication.

Gove said there was "no contradiction" between protecting civil servants and ensuring data held by Government departments, for example on spending, is "more transparent than ever".

Gove, who lost a 2012 FoI battle to keep emails from his personal account secret, highlighted concerns raised by Tony Blair and former home secretary Jack Straw about "defects" in how the laws they introduced have been used.

He said the courts have shown a "worrying tendency" towards eroding the ability of civil servants to offer candid advice to ministers to stop them making mistakes, saying judgments have been made that run "contrary to the spirit of the original act".

During justice questions in the Commons yesterday, Gove said: "I think we do need to revisit the Freedom of Information Act absolutely.

"I think it is absolutely vital that we ensure that the advice that civil servants give to ministers of whatever government is protected so that civil servants can speak candidly and offer advice in order to ensure that ministers do not make mistakes.

"I think that there has been a worrying tendency in our courts and elsewhere to erode the protections for that safe space for policy advice and I think it absolutely needs to be asserted.

"And there is no contradiction between making sure that we give civil servants the protection that they deserve and also ensuring that the data – for example the amount that we spend in any government department – is more transparent than ever."

Asked if legislation would be brought forward, the Justice Secretary went on: "We want to review the operation of the original Freedom of Information Act.

"There have been some judgments that have been made that have actually run contrary to the spirit of the original Act and some of those behind the original Act, including the former prime minister Tony Blair and the home secretary at the time who introduced the legislation, Jack Straw, have been very clear about the defects in the way in which the Act has operated.

"It's vitally important that we get back to the founding principles of freedom of information.

"Citizens should have access to data, they should know what is done in their name and about the money that is spent in their name, but it is also vital that the conversations between ministers and civil servants are protected in the interests of good government."

Today, Campaign for Freedom of Information director Maurice Frankel responded by saying: "The Information Commissioner and Tribunal already take steps to ensure that advice is protected where disclosure would harm the public interest. But it does not adopt a blanket approach.

"Mr Gove should know this: earlier this year the Tribunal ruled that the advice he had received as Education Secretary before cancelling Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme should not be disclosed. Releasing it would expose the working relationship between ministers and officials and undermine the future provision of frank advice, it said.

"But in other cases it has ordered disclosure, particularly where the advice is anodyne or old or the arguments for confidentiality are implausible.” 

The campaign group said in a statement that Gove's comments "suggest that he is planning to significantly restrict the FOI Act".

The statement said: "It highlighted his suggestion that what the public need is access to 'data' for example on public spending rather than information on how decisions have been reached."  Frankel said: “The public needs both and the Act provides a vital element of scrutiny which should not be weakened."

In 2012, Information Commissioner Christopher Graham ruled that emails sent and received by Gove through a private account reportedly named "Mrs Blurt" were covered by the Freedom of Information Act because they were related to departmental business.

The commissioner told the Department for Education, which Gove then headed up as education secretary, either to release the information requested or issue a formal refusal notice setting out why it is being withheld.

Gove had been resisting the release of the information on the grounds that ministers' personal email accounts are not covered by the Act.

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