Press release

Opening up public bodies to public scrutiny

New plans to extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) to open up government and other bodies to public scrutiny, were unveiled by the Ministry of Justice today.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The changes will make it easier for people to use FOI to find and use information about the public bodies they rely on and their taxes pay for, by:

  • increasing the number of organisations to which FOI requests can be made, bringing in bodies such as the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Financial Services Ombudsman, and higher education admissions body UCAS; and also all companies wholly owned by any number of public authorities
  • consulting on bringing a range of further bodies which are believed to perform functions of a public nature under the FOI umbrella, including Examination Boards, Harbour Authorities, the Local Government Association and the NHS Confederation
  • making most public records available at The National Archives and other places of deposit ten years sooner, when they are 20 years old; the package will also reduce the time some types of information - including court records, ministerial correspondence and policy formulation - can be withheld, to 20 years instead of 30
  • undertaking post legislative scrutiny, to see how well the Act is working in practice and whether there are further changes to be made.

Justice Minister Lord McNally said:

‘The public deserves a Government that is open and accountable for its actions. I am delighted to announce this package of measures to extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act, which will give people additional tools to find out whether thousands of UK bodies are acting in the public interest and providing value for money.

‘But the work does not stop here - we will be carrying out a full review of the FOI Act to ensure it is still operating in the most effective way. The review is just one part of the Government’s commitment to transparency. We aim to increase the amount of information readily available to the public and have already achieved a great deal, including for example the publication of all Government spending over £25,000 and the salaries of the Civil Service’s highest earners.’

Commenting on being included in the Act, ACPO President Sir Hugh Orde said:

‘Any organisation that operates as part of a key public service should be accountable and open to public scrutiny. The Association of Chief Police Officers has been asking to be included under the Act and welcomes the extension of authorities that it offers. The Police Service as a whole has responded and adapted itself to the challenge of Freedom of Information, becoming more open and transparent than ever before to meet demand which amounted to approximately 31,500 requests made to Home Office forces under the Act in 2010. As ACPO prepares for these provisions coming into force we will continue to respond to requests for information where information is retrievable.’

Another important part of the package will be enhanced independence for the Information Commissioner’s Office - the body responsible for regulating the FOI and Data Protection Acts. The Commissioner, who is  already completely independent in the decisions he takes about bodies’ compliance with their legal obligations and how he uses his resources, will be given more freedom to make day-to-day corporate and operational decisions.

In addition to the above measures, added protection will be given to information relating to communications with Members of the Royal Family, and those writing on their behalf, particularly the Sovereign, Heir, and second in line to the Throne. This is to protect the long-standing conventions surrounding the Monarchy and its records, for example the Sovereign’s right and duty to counsel, encourage and warn her Government, as well as the Heir to the Throne’s right to be instructed in the business of Government in preparation for their future role as Monarch.

Notes to editors

The full content of the Freedom of Information Package is as follows:

  1. Extending the Act to additional bodies: Clauses will be included in the Freedom Bill (to be introduced by February 2011) amending section 6 of the FOI Act so it extends to companies wholly owned by more than one public authority (as opposed to only those owned by a single public authority). Secondary legislation (following statutory consultations with the bodies concerned) will extend the Act to a range of other bodies performing functions of a public nature. The Association of Chief Police Officers, UCAS and the Financial Ombudsman Service have already been consulted and will be brought under FOI as soon as possible. 3. The following provisions from the Constitutional Reform and Governance (CRAG) Act 2010 will be commenced:
    • To amend the Public Records Act to reduce the 30-year rule so that historical records are generally made available at The National Archives and other places of deposit after 20 years; this will be transitioned over a 10 year period at a rate of two years’ worth of records being transferred per year, with a view to commencing the process in 2013.
      • The parallel reduction in the lifespan of certain exemptions in the Act to 20 years. The exemptions affected are: s30 (investigations); s32 (court records); s33 (audit functions); s35 (formulation and development of govt policy, ministerial communications etc); s36 (prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs) (except for information prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs in Northern Ireland or to the work of the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland  Assembly); and s42 (legal professional privilege).
      • Enhanced protection for information relating to communications with the Royal Family and Household. Communications with the Monarch, the Heir to the Throne and second in line to the Throne will be subject to an absolute exemption, and the rest will remain qualified. The lifespan of the exemption will change from 30 years to 20 years, or five years after the death of the relevant member of the Royal Family, whichever is later.
  2. The Freedom of Information Act will be amended in the Freedom Bill to ensure public authorities proactively release data in a way that allows businesses, non-profit organisations and others to re-use the information for social and commercial purposes.
  3. Enhancing the independence of the Information Commissioner’s Office. The Freedom Bill will seek to remove the requirement that the Commissioner seeks the Secretary of State’s consent in relation to the appointment of staff, their pay and pensions etc; to limit the Commissioner to a single 5 year term and make the appointment process more transparent, including a greater role for Parliament; and to introduce specific circumstances under which he may be removed from office. There will also be provisions for the Commissioner to set charges for certain services independently, and to issue statutory guidance without the sign off of the Secretary of State. In addition to regulating the FOI Act, the Commissioner is also responsible for the Data Protection Act, the Environmental Information Regulations and the Electronic Communication Regulations.
  4. A review of the operation of the FOI Act, in the form of post legislative scrutiny.

For further information contact the Ministry of Justice press office on 020 3334 3536.

Published 7 January 2011