FOI Commission Softens Stance on Anonymised Evidence

Lord Burns, chair of the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information, has said that evidence to the commission will not be anonymised unless the circumstances are “appropriate” to do so following an outcry by campaigners. 

In response to a letter from the Campaign for Freedom of Information expressing concern about the commission’s intention to anonymise published evidence, Lord Burns says that the statement that the commission will anonymise contributions if they are quoted will be removed from the consultation document.

“We have concluded that the sentence is unnecessary and we will remove it. The commission intends to publish the evidence it receives, except where the contributor asks for anonymity and it is appropriate in the circumstances to grant it,” Lord Burns said.

The CFOI had written to Lord Burns expressing concern at the commission’s proposal to anonymise any evidence that it cites in its report amid an outcry from press freedom groups about the commission’s stance.

The News Media Association has launched a drive to defend the Freedom of Information Act and is encouraging members to respond to the consultation, which closes on 20 November, and to contact their local MP to request that they support the campaign in Parliament. The NMA has created a new FOI section on its website with briefings and a news section detailing coverage of the issue in the news.

“It is one thing to undertake to protect the identity of individuals responding in a personal capacity – though most would probably be happy to be identified if asked. It is quite another to obscure the identity of public authorities or others on whose evidence the Commission has relied in drawing up its proposals,” CFOI director Maurice Frankel said.

The CFOI had argued that the commission’s approach would be difficult to justify in any public policy review. For a report dealing with and likely to recommend restrictions to the Freedom of Information Act it is extraordinarily inappropriate. If the Commission cannot recognise the need for openness in its own report there is little chance of it appreciating the value of the FOI Act in promoting greater openness elsewhere, the CFOI said.

This also calls into question whether the Commission is capable of properly addressing the balancing exercise set out in its terms of reference which require it to consider “whether there is an appropriate public interest balance between transparency, accountability and the need for sensitive information to have robust protection,” the CFOI added.