NMA Shares Concerns With CFOI Over ARIA Bill

The News Media Association shares the concerns expressed by the Campaign for Freedom of Information over the exclusion of new scientific research body ARIA from the scope of the Freedom of Information Act.

The NMA said: “The NMA is supportive of the CFOI’s concerns surrouding the ARIA Bill. Excluding ARIA from the scope of FOI would mean drawing a veil of secrecy over this independent research body, leading to a dangerous lack of transparency and accountability.”

The CFOI published a report on Tuesday for MPs for the second reading of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill which was introduced to create a new independent research body, which “will be empowered to take an innovative and flexible approach to funding cutting-edge science and technology.” 

The CFOI maintain that ARIA will be better resourced to answer FOI requests, than other small bodies who already have to comply with the Act, bodies including GPs, dentists, schools, police and crime commissioners and parish and town councils.

The CFOI said: “Some of these authorities employ fewer than five staff, most employ less than 20. If these small authorities are able to comply with FOIA so will ARIA. All public authorities have important tasks to fulfil in the public interest and limited resources.

“ARIA has no greater claim to avoid complying with FOI legislation than any other public authority. On the contrary, its budget, which vastly outstrips that of many FOI bodies, provides compelling grounds for its inclusion.”

The CFOI said: “It is extraordinary that a body responsible for spending £800 million of public funds over four years should be freed from the scrutiny that applies to the whole public sector. Many of the bodies subject to FOIA have tiny resources compared to those that ARIA will enjoy.”

ARIA will join the Royal Family, security and intelligence bodies, the special forces and National Crime Agency, in the bodies that are excluded from the FOIA. These bodies are exempt due to their holding of sensitive information, but ARIA is excluded to avoid the “burden” of complying with FOIA. The CFOI described this as an “ominous indicator of the Government’s view of FOI”.

“To set that strong public interest aside – as the Government proposes to do in relation to ARIA – would require a weighty countervailing public interest. The Government’s justification, that it wants ‘to enable ARIA to operate like a high tech start-up, with minimal back-office function’ conspicuously fails to provide it,” the CFOI said.

Read the full report here.