Is the government, like so many others before it, considering a u-turn on FOI reform? According to the Sun it seems the answer is yes. The Sun editorial quotes a ‘ senior Tory minister’ as saying ‘nobody in the Government wants to touch this now, it’s a very hot political potato’ and points out that the government itself has failed to present any evidence to the Commission. So why the cold feet?
- Civil society has marshalled a large array of bodies and groups, as seen with 140 signatory letter earlier this year and is (presumably) responsible for the majority of the 30,000 submissions to the Commission.
- Parliamentary arithmetic: there is opposition to FOI reform not only from Labour (who has launched its own review) and the SNP but the so called ‘Runnymeade Tories’, a group of up to 12 or so libertarian Conservative backbenchers. Should some of the changes require primary legislation, or even secondary change such as a statutory instrument (a touchy subject these days), David Davies speculated that it ‘may also have dawned on ministers is that they are have no majority to do this in either the Commons or the Lords’. Conservative Home, seen as the voice of the grassroots of the Conservative party, is also opposed to any change-and is actually pressuring to extend the Act.
- Media opposition to change: papers from the Sun to the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail have joined the opposition, with the Mail’s editor Paul Dacre making a personal intervention.
For a party with a working majority of 17 in the Commons, no majority in an already unrully House of Lords and a Prime Minister committed to lead the most open government in the world, it’s beginning to seem that FOI reform simply isn’t worth the candle. The symbolic damage sustained by cutting back on FOI will do the government far more harm than good with some of their core constituencies in the party and media. The great 2015-2016 pushback may join a long list of other attempts that (almost) all failed:
- Introduce fees or change the cost limits (2006)
- Remove Parliament (2007)
- Removal of Monarch and Heir and exempt Cabinet documents (2010)
- Clampdown on ‘industrial users’ (2012-2013)
That may not, however, stop other bodies trying to get out of FOI…