The Independent Commission charged with reviewing Freedom of Information legislation has now issued its report. Its chief conclusion is that “the Act is generally working well, and that it has been one of a number of measures that havehelped to change the culture of the public sector”. It recommends a number of changes, some of them extending the scope of the law, and some intended to clarify its operation. Nothing, at least on a first read, seems to involve major change.
Well, you might say, if nothing’s changing why write about it? The short answer is that a lot of powerful individuals and bodies hoped that the Act would be changed significantly, among them most of Britain’s universities. The Commission said that 74 public bodies had submitted evidence to it, most of them complaining that the Act was burdensome and asking for restrictions. University heads have been lobbying governments in England and Scotland for some time about the law, and in England at least government was willing to consider change.
This case was put directly to the Commission by Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, who attended to present evidence in person. According to Dandridge, the higher education sector supported the principles behind the Act, but was suffering from a huge rise in the costs of compliance, allied to the growing competition between public universities subject to the legislation and private providers who are not. And I really encourage you to read the transcript of the subsequent discussion.
The veteran Labour MP Jack Straw, former cabinet minister and onetime student leader, gave her a particularly torrid time, exposing a number of holes – or less charitably, errors – in her knowledge. Equally damaging, when pressed for an example of the harm done by answering FoI requests, Dandridge chose the topic of ‘non-academic salaries at senior level’. She didn’t know the size of private higher education provision (her guess of 10-15% of students is way off the mark). She was unable to understand a Liberal Democrat peer who suggested that being subject to FoI could be seen as an advantage, when compared to the less transparent private universities.
Little wonder that the Commission concluded that the evidence provided by Universities UK (and the Russell Group) was ‘unpersuasive’, finding that ‘it continues to be appropriate and important for universitiesto remain subject to the Act’. But this may not be the end of the matter.
The Government has the right to reject part or all of the advice it receives from the Commission in respect of the English legislation, and the Vice Chancellors’ lobby will continue. Scottish the university heads are lobbying separatelyfor exemption from the FoI Scotland Act, on the grounds that it diverts resources towards answering questions and away from teaching and research. This is as spurious an argument as those advanced to the Commission, and again it does the sector’s reputation no good.
It should be clear by now that I support the FoI legislation, and argued for such a law back in the 1980s. I see the 2000 Act as one of a number of significant achievements of the much-maligned New Labour government (and no, I am not usually a Labour Party supporter). I also think that universities should be comfortable with the idea that they are public institutions with public obligations, even if some of their funding comes from private sources.
Of course the Act does cause some problems. I’ve encountered companies trying to access interview data that relate to the health impact of their products, but we saw them off. Many requests are dealt with simply by pointing people to the relevant web link, others contravene data privacy. On the other hand, it is not hard to come up with plenty of cases where the Act has worked in the public interest, from exposing off-payroll payments for senior staff to universities reliance on corporate sponsors to explanations of admissions decisions. The legislation has justified itself, and it’s time for university heads to get over it.