NMA Hails FOI Victories on Performance Data and Universities

The News Media Association has welcomed two victories this week in its campaign to maintain and expand the UK’s Freedom of Information laws.

The Cabinet Office has confirmed that it will extend across the public sector a duty to publish data detailing how quickly organisations respond to FOI requests, while the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has dropped plans to scrap FOI for universities.

Under proposals announced in the UK Open Government National Action Plan 2016-18, public sector bodies employing over 100 people will have to publish statistics on how quickly they answer FOI requests.

The NMA called for a public sector-wide duty of this kind in its response to the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information consultation on reforming FOI. The Commission, in turn, endorsed the measure in its report, which was published in March this year.

Central government departments are already required information on how quickly and fully they respond to FOI, but local authorities, police forces and NHS trusts are currently under no such obligation.

A consultation on a new Code of Practice setting out the standard of information to be released by these bodies is due later this year.

The National Action Plan, which was agreed in conjunction with the Open Government Network of transparency groups, also contains commitments to creating a public register of the beneficial ownership of foreign companies buying UK property and or bidding for UK public sector contracts, as well as to publish more data on public sector contracts and to do so in more accessible formats.

Meanwhile, proposals to exempt universities from the FOI Act 2000 were formally dropped by the Government earlier this week, following a campaign by the NMA.

In its Higher Education White Paper, released on Monday, BIS said that “we will retain the current approach: approved (fee cap) providers (who are eligible for direct grant funding) will come within the scope of the FOI Act, while registered and approved providers (who are not eligible for direct grant funding) will not.”

The NMA voiced its opposition to removing universities from FOI back in January this year, warning that taking universities out of FOI would put nearly £4bn of public money beyond scrutiny.

In its response to BIS’ consultation on the plans, the NMA also questioned claims made by the Russell Group and other sector bodies about the financial burden of FOI and contrasted what universities spent on FOI with the far greater amounts they invested in communications and public relations.  

The department explains in the White Paper that it is rowing back on the proposal to remove these institutions from FOI in light of the consultation responses it had received.

The department cites the NMA’s submission, which had said: “The Freedom of Information Act is based on the unarguable principle that taxpayers have the right to know how their money is being spent….

“In addition to receiving substantial public funding, universities are powerful institutions that exercise important public functions, such as controlling access to the professions, awarding degrees and the ability to discipline members.”