Jack Straw to be part of Freedom of Information review

Nicholas Winterton, Cyril Smith (1928-2010) and Jack Straw, Members of Parliament for the textile towns Macclesfield, Rochdale and Blackburn respectively, stand outside 10 Downing Street in London on 10th June 1980.

Over the weekend the Cabinet Office announced a review of the Freedom of Information Act. Now it is always sensible to check any act that promotes civil liberties against actual practice. But alarm bells started ringing when the members of the review panel were revealed.

Chief among them is Jack Straw, who brought in the Act in 2000 as Home Secretary. But he is now saying that “inquiries about ministerial communications and the formulation of government policy should not be allowed any more”. I’m sure I am not alone in thinking that the secrecy surrounding the development of government policies, especially the role of lobbyists, was precisely why we needed freedom of information. He has also said that citizens should be charged for FoI requests. Interestingly ‘a Labour source’ has distanced the party from his appointment, saying that Straw is acting in a personal capacity, and not representing the party, and that “If the government were genuinely interested in improving the workings of the act, it should have chosen a more balanced panel.”

Also on the panel is Michael Howard. As the Metro points out:

Lord Howard, former Conservative leader, came under fire for his expenses, which included large gardening bills.

These were disclosed after a Freedom of Information Act request.

The Independent has a list of nine things that we only know because of the Act, including the fact that Cyril Smith tried to stop police from investigating claims that he abused boys.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has responded:

The government is clearly proposing to crack down on FOI. Ministers want certainty that policy discussions will not only take place in secret but be kept secret afterwards.  They don’t like the fact that the Act requires the case for confidentiality to be weighed against the public interest in disclosure. The Commissioner and Tribunal give substantial weight to the need to protect ongoing government discussions and the frankness of future exchanges.  But after a decision has been announced they sometimes order disclosure where exchanges are anodyne, the material is old or the case for openness is overwhelming.  If that balancing test is removed mistakes, bad decisions and policy failures caused by deliberately ignoring the evidence will be concealed for 20 years.

 

 

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames where she is still very active with the local party.

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21 Comments

  • I should add that the LibDem on the panel is Lord Carlile… and leave it there.

  • In light of the make up of the panel, I believe an input from overseas would help, preferably someone in tune with the Government, how about this fella!!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_Jong-un

  • Lord Anthony Lester sums this up in a wonderful tweet: “Putting Michael Howard & Jack Straw on #FOIA review group is like putting Burke and Hare on a Commission reviewing Graveyard Security” https://twitter.com/Odysseus_Trust/status/623070257217978368

  • This is an early opportunity for a strong Liberal Democrat response.

    Lord Burns, Jack Straw, Patricia Hodgson, Michael Howard or Alec Carlile make a wholly one sided committee. An additional official Lib Dem comment is needed on the status of Alec Carlile on the review panel to complement the statement from Labour on Jack Straw.

  • I must admit Jack Straw being appointed to anything should alarm us all. If FOI requires a review then lets have a truly representative review, I suspect that any changes made will make it harder to hold people to account and will protect the very few. Not a step in the right direction.

  • This should remind us that as well as undoing many of the good things that Lib Dems brought in, the Tories are busy undoing all the good things that the last Labour government brought in.

  • David Evans 20th Jul '15 - 2:04pm

    This is absolutely fundamental to whether the country is governed in an open, transparent and liberal manner or whether it is back to the “We know what’s best for you” approach so loved by authoritarians and incompetents everywhere.

    Tim needs to have a detailed chat with Alex, whom I consider to be a good liberal, despite the views of many posters in the past regarding his role as advisor on terrorism, and to come up with a strong and robust denunciation of the entire proposal. It needs to be accompanied by a media blitz showing this is what you get when the Lib Dems are out of government. “Would the expenses scandal have been exposed without FOI?” “Would the attempt to cover up the xxx etc etc etc” and “Do we want a government we can trust because we can see what they are doing, or a government we despise because they don’t trust us?” All these messages need to repeated again and again.

    If we handle this right, it could be a great chance to kickstart our drive to regain the trust of the British people. If we mess it up, it could be a very long road back.

  • Helen Tedcastle 20th Jul '15 - 2:26pm

    Jack Straw and Michael Howard? Massive alarm bells ringing…

  • I have just corrected an error in the heading, which was originally ‘Jack Straw to head Freedom of Information review’. It will be chaired by Lord Burns. Apologies.

  • Matt (Bristol) 20th Jul '15 - 3:21pm

    ‘Over the weekend the Home Office announced…’ is really not a good start to any sentence.

    Lord Burns is a curiously anonymous and relatively non-specialist chair for a panel with 2 previous Home Secretaries on it – anyone got any biography on him recently? Wikipedia says he was a Treasury advisor from 1976 to 1998, has had fingers in various pies including the Hunting with Dogs Commission of 2000, governance of the BBC, and has nothing on him since he became Chairman of Channel 4 in 2010.

  • Straw, Howard and Carlile? That’s not a stitch up at all, no siree Bob.

  • Richard Underhill 20th Jul '15 - 4:17pm

    Jack Straw was Home Secretary when a major computer contract with Siemens was cancelled at a reputed cost of £65 million. There was not much publicity at the time. He has held several Cabinet level posts, which might be thought to create the risk of a conflict of interest.

  • Richard Underhill 20th Jul '15 - 5:09pm
  • “Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head until it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naïve, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it”.

    “….For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, “Hey, try this instead”, and handing them a mallet……”

    From “A Journey” by Tony Blair (published in 2010). Pages 516 and 517 of the paperback version make interesting reading!

  • suzanne fletcher 21st Jul '15 - 8:26am

    very worrying indeed. I joined the party in 1974, not just called by jo Grimond but 2 policy issues, one of which was the need for F of I and I was one of the first members of the campaign led by Des Wilson. I cut my political teeth on it as a new councillor in 1981 when the Labour Party and many council officers hid behind it.
    As a party we ganged up to fund court cases to open up local government, members underwiritng court cases, and chiselled away at the worst excesses. It was a happy day when it was embedded in legislation, and something Margaret Thatcher did right.
    The very thought if it being undermined is horrifying, those with most to hide will be gleeful. As well as the crucial bigger picture, who is going to protect the right to information in local government, and who is going to champion the need for F of I in the growing number of new public bodies such as the new super councils and various joint bodies ?

  • We need to extend the FOI Act not weaken it.

    A good reminder of the positive impact of FOI and why sadly we must now fight to defend the legislation:

    https://www.libdemvoice.org/caroline-pidgeon-am-writes-in-praise-of-freedom-of-information-legislation-41212.html

  • In other news……
    “King Herod has been given task of reviewing the government’s child care politcies.”

    As far a Straw is concerned a I remember a very senior Labour Councillor (and former MP) telling me he went with a LGA delegation to see Jack Straw when he was a Minister. Straw sent a message through a junior staffer saying he would not be able to meet them due to urgent government business, the staffer asked if there was any message they could send to the Rt Hom Mr Straw. The Councillor said “tell him I remember him when he was a researcher here, and he was no bloody good at that job either!”

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