THE ODYSSEUS TRUST
Freedom of Information
The Trust was actively involved in the passage and adoption of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which came into force on 1 January 2005. The Trust has so far made two Freedom of Information requests under the provisions of the Act and we intend to make further use of the Freedom of Information Act in the future. Information about these FOI requests can be found below. Most recently, in February 2007, the Trust submitted written evidence to an inquiry by the Constitutional Affairs Committee regarding the Draft Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2007. Our submission can be found here
Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill
Towards the end of 2006, David McLean MP intorduced a Private Member's Bill to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000 ("the FOI Act"). The Bill sought to amend the existing freedom of information regime by (i) removing both the House of Commons and he House of Lords from the FOI Act and (ii) preventing the disclosure of all communications between Members of Parliament and the public.
It was clear that the Bill was intended to neutralise a decision of the Information Tribunal which held that the detail of MPs' expenditures should be released to the public upon request. The Bill would have removed all information relating to MPs, including their expenses, which would be a large blow to parliamentary transparency.
Despite the fact that the Bill stood in stark contrast to the Tribunal decision, MPs passed the Bill in the House of Commons.
The Trust worked with several NGOs and newspapers to oppose the Bill in the Lords. On 11th June 2007 the Trust and Lord Lester, together with Liberty and the Campaign for freedom of Information, held an all-party meeting to brief Peers about the Bill's threat to freedom of information.
With no sponsor willing to take the Bill up in the Lords, the Bill expired two days after the all-party briefing.
Consultation responses on 30 year rule and fees
Freedom of Information - Fees
The Trust responded to three consultation regarding freedom of information. The first two, initiated by the Constitutional Affairs Committee and the Department for Constitutional Affairs respectively, dealt with the Government's proposal to use the Draft Freedom of Information and data protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) regulations 2007 to increase fees for requests for information and expand the powers of officials to refuse requests.
The Trust responded to both consultations by raising four main objections: (i) the regulations would preserve, rather than remove, the over-broad discretion of a public authority to refuse information requests solely on the ground of burdensomeness; (ii) prohibitive fees would be imposed irrespective of the public interestin the information; (iii) broad discretionary powers would be delegated with wide scoipe for abuse and inadequate safeguards; (iv) by imposing heftly fees, legitimate as well as vexatious claims would be affected.
The conclusion of the consultations, which featured many extracts from the Trust's response, led the Government to abandson the proposed regulations.
Freedom of Information - 30 year rule
On 25th October 2007, the Prime Minister appointed an independent team, under the chair of Paul Dacre, to review the 30-year time limit after which most public records are transferred to the National Archives and opened for public inspection. Lord Lester was invited to respond in his individual capacity and was assisted by the Trust. Our response to the consultation recommended that there should be a general period of non-disclosure of either 10 or 15 years. This would cover two or three terms of a Government and would be sufficient time to allow information relating to live policy to remain undisclosed, until the policy was implemented. We also recommended specific exceptions wherer it would be in the public interst or to protect the well-being of individuals.
The review team reported back to the Prime Minister in 2008, adopting our 15 year time limit proposal.
International Human Rights Instruments:
The first Freedom of Information request concerned International Human Rights Instruments. On 2 February 2005, Anthony Lester asked to see the official studies, empirical studies and other research from an Inter-Departmental Review by the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) which led to the decision to accept the right of individual petition under Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) but not under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Convention against Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT).
In response to the request the DCA sent a factual study and said that the information was subject to some delay as an exemption applied to the information requested. This exemption was Section 27 – International Relations, which is subject to the balance of public interest and required their further consideration. After this extra time the DCA sent one further document on 24 March 2005. The document shows the number of applications made under CERD, CEDAW, ICCPR by various countries. However, we did not receive information which would enable us to see why the Government accepted individual petition under CEDAW but not the other Treaties.
The date the Government first sought legal advice about the legality of an invasion of Iraq: :
The second request, which was made to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) on 15 February 2005, was for the date when the Government first sought legal advice about the legality of an invasion of Iraq. The FCO responded by informing us that they needed further time to respond to the request. The reason given was that the qualified exemption in section 35 of the FOI Act (formulation of government policy) applied to the information requested and the extra time was needed to apply the public interest test before taking a decision on disclosure.
This FOI request was subject to repeated and, we believe, unnecessary delays. Almost a year after making the initial request for information, the FCO said that on 21 February 2002 an official in the Cabinet Office commissioned interdepartmental advice on Iraq for Ministers, including the Prime Minister. This advice is summarised in paragraphs 259-269 of the Butler Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction and was provided to Ministers in early March 2002. This commission included a request for a paper from the FCO on the legality of possible military action against Iraq. Paragraph 266 makes particular reference to this legal paper. Furthermore, as referred to in paragraph 287 of the report of the Butler Review, the Prime Minister chaired a meeting of Ministers and officials on 23 July 2002 to discuss the options for dealing with Iraq’s non-compliance with its UN obligations. During the course of this meeting, the issue of the legal basis for possible military action arose and further work on the legal issues was commissioned.
In light of these difficulties Lord Lester submitted written evidence to the Constitutional Affairs Committee’s Inquiry into the operation of the Freedom of Information Act. This written submission to the inquiry can be found in their report here
Last updated August 2009