The Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, has called for the commission reviewing the freedom of information law to be disbanded, describing the stance of his party’s own peer Lord Carlile and others on the commission as one-sided.
The commission was established in July by Conservative Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock to examine whether the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act 2000 – which was introduced by the last Labour government – is too expensive and intrusive.
“The group looking into it strikes me at least to have a bias towards limiting access to FoI requests for quite spurious reasons,” said Farron. “I’m sure there is a cost – an administrative cost and a time cost – to providing this information, but that’s the price you pay for living in a liberal society.”
Carlile, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, accused the Guardian of “a criminal act” when it published stories using National Security Agency material leaked by Edward Snowden. He has also said it would be glib for the government to require judges to approve warrants to intercept communications, calling for an end to the “demonisation” of the security services.
Farron said he liked Carlile and described him as having been “a great servant to the party”, but added: “I think it’s probably not wise to have people on the committee whose positions are known and tend to be stacked in one direction.
“And it’s not just Alex Carlile, it’s others as well whose views are already known. They’re entitled to those views and I respect those views, but it would make me feel a lot easier if that panel included people who have other points of view as well.”
The five-member committee, which has been described by campaigners as an “establishment stitch-up”, includes the former Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw, who is already on the record calling for the act to be rewritten.
Also on the panel is former Conservative party leader Michael Howard, whose gardening expenses were criticised after being exposed following FoI requests, and Dame Patricia Hodgson, the deputy chair of Ofcom, which has criticised the act for its “chilling effect” on government. Jeremy Heywood, Britain’s most senior civil servant, also described the effects of FoI on Whitehall as “chilling”.
Farron said any conclusions drawn by the commission other than to protect the existing rules would not be credible. “They need to scrap the current set-up and start again,” he said.
“I’m all for reviewing legislation 16 years since it came in – I think that’s a perfectly sensible thing to do – but if you start off your exercise with a group of people whose instincts are to rein in the powers then that’s illiberal.”
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have stressed that Straw and Carlile are taking part in the commission in a personal capacity and do not represent the views of their parties, which in both cases favour leaving the act unaltered.
Under current freedom of information laws anyone can ask for information as long as finding it does not cost a government department more than £600 or another public body £450. FoI campaigners are concerned that the commission could recommend introducing a charge for freedom of information requests or tightening the rules on how much a request can cost.
The commission is consulting on three central changes: charging for the requests; making it easier to refuse requests on cost grounds; and giving ministers more powers to veto disclosures so that Whitehall has a safe place where civil servants and ministers can devise policy out of the public eye.
Farron’s comments come as Labour called on members of the commission to clarify their position on the future of the act, amid signs that they were getting cold feet about the controversial changes.
Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour party, told the Guardian that Hancock, the minister responsible for FoI, must now tell the public what he thought.
“The irony is that Matthew Hancock, in unattributable briefings, has let it be known that he is against diluting the FoI Act. His words have pulled the rug from under the members of the commission that he is responsible for setting up,” said Watson.
“The first thing he should do is come clean with people and say where he actually stands, on the record. He is happy for journalists to write these stories up. But we need to know: where does he actually stand?
“If he confirms his attributed views, then he should wrap this commission up now. It is just costing the taxpayer money to keep this commission going when the government has changed its view. He should admit that.”
Heywood should also clarify his position, particularly in the absence of any official position from the civil service on the FoI Act, Watson said.
“Jeremy Heywood is in a particularly sensitive position because the government decided not to give evidence to its own commission so we know exactly where our most senior mandarin stands.
“Jeremy should now speak on the record. There have been plenty of these briefings. Earlier, we heard that he thought that the FOI Act would bring a chilling effect. Just after Christmas he apparently gives a different line. Which is it?” he said.
The commission was initially due to report by 17 December after a 20 November deadline on consultation responses. But after it received more than 30,000 submissions of evidence – including lengthy submissions from news organisations – the commission announced it would report some time after 25 January.
“[FoI] is not just a nice journalistic tool,” said Farron. “It’s not just a nice way for members of parliament to embarrass whoever is in government and whichever public authority they want to put on the spot. It’s actually about making sure that decisions that are made about the British people are accessible to the British people.”
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