NMA Calls On Peers To Bring ARIA Into FOI

The News Media Association has called on peers to act to bring ARIA into the scope of the Freedom of Information Act after MPs highlighted the threat to the public right to know posed by excluding the new research agency from transparency laws.

In a Commons debate on the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill, MPs said there was an “urgent need for more oversight” and that exempting the new body from FOI would undermine public confidence in its research.

As the Bill now passes into the Lords, the NMA has joined with the Campaign for Freedom of Information and transparency campaigners in calling for peers to act to bring ARIA within the scope of FOI.

Separately, this week campaigning organisation openDemocracy won a legal bid in the Information Tribunal to force the Cabinet Office to release details of how its “FOI clearing house” handled requests after concerns about its operations.  

Sayra Tekin, News Media Association legal, policy and regulatory affairs director, said: “This is an important victory for the principles of transparency and open government which, through their journalism, local and national news media uphold on behalf of the public.

“The Government must now reconsider its approach to FOI and seek to support it rather than thwarting it. Abolishing the ‘FOI clearing house’ and including ARIA within the scope of FOI would be two important steps towards achieving this.”

In the Commons debate on the ARIA Bill, MPs criticised the Government’s bid to exclude the new research agency from FOI arguing that safeguards were “imperative” for the organisation to command public confidence.  

Owen Thompson, SNP, said: “In setting up the new funding body, especially for high-risk funding such as this, surely it is imperative that safeguards are built in to protect against the risk of corruption. There is an urgent need for more oversight, not less, of public spending decisions.

“We have been here before; we are all well versed in the Government’s rebuttal on less scrutiny—that speed and efficiency are the necessities. It looks as though similar lines are being trotted out on this Bill.”

Andy Slaughter, Labour, said:  “We hear about high-risk, high-reward research and ARIA being allowed to fail, and there is nothing wrong with those as functions, but there has to be transparency, and, frankly, having that in the public eye, rather than hidden away, is more likely to lead to better decision making.

“The parallel body that we have heard about—DARPA in the USA—has had scandals and ethics violations that have been brought to light because it is subject to the equivalent Freedom of Information Act in that country. I believe that this is the right thing to do and in the interests of good research and the good use of public money.”