Peers Warn Excluding ARIA From FOI Will Damage Public Trust

The new advanced research and invention agency will come to be viewed with public suspicion and distrust if it is not included within the scope of Freedom of Information laws, peers have warned.

The News Media Association has joined forces with the Campaign for Freedom of Information and transparency campaigners to call for ARIA to brought into the scope of the Freedom of Information Act as the ARIA Bill becomes law.

In a report stage debate in the House of Lords this week, peers said Ministers had produced no evidence that the new agency would be overwhelmed by FoI requests if it were brought within scope of the regime.

Viscount Stansgate said there were two reasons why ARIA should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.  He said: “Public bodies set up in statute should be subjected to the same FOI requirements as apply elsewhere. In this country, I submit that FOI legislation is an essential safeguard in the political world in which we now live.

“The second reason is practical. We do not want to allow ARIA to come to be viewed with public suspicion and distrust, especially as it has the right to fail, so being open about its work will be beneficial. If it turns out that it is not easy to discover what it is doing, public support for ARIA might be damaged, to the detriment of its wider role.

He added: “Moreover, if there are aspects of ARIA’s future work that turn out to be sensitive, the Government already have powers elsewhere in the Bill for the Secretary of State to intervene on grounds of national security.”

Lib Dem Lord Clement-Jones, who moved an amendment to bring ARIA within the scope of FOI, said: “The Minister has continually highlighted that ARIA is modelled on DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]. DARPA was subject to the US Freedom of Information Act and DARPA is subject to it as well.

“This has not prevented them achieving the successes which the Government wish ARIA to emulate. We talked in Committee about the equivalent number of requests received before the restructuring of the research bodies, which were exactly equivalent to those of DARPA.

“The argument that DARPA charges fees falls away too. The main classes of requester—the news media and educational staff—and requests in the public interest are not charged. In practice, only commercial requesters have to pay.”

Baroness Chapman of Darlington, Labour, said: “The Government’s determination to keep ARIA’s projects and decision-making secret is worrying. This is a matter of principle: do they believe in transparency, or not?

“We believe that it is in ARIA’s best interests to have the benefit of engagement of the public through the use of FoI. Failing to do that is not going to stop ARIA’s activities becoming known; it will just happen in a less controlled manner and create more suspicion.

Previous arguments about the huge burden of FoI—in the Minister’s terms—appear to be somewhat disingenuous. We appreciate the Government’s desire for ARIA to be a small and agile body, but they have produced no evidence at all that such a body would be overwhelmed by requests.

She added: “Indeed, at earlier stages, there was an extensive discussion about DARPA, which receives an average of just under one FoI request per week.”

Lord Clement-Jones’ amendment to bring ARIA within the scope of FOI was disagreed by 134 votes to 126.