Given the fact that in coalition it is hard to get agreement on big policies, especially as there isn’t a lot of spare cash, I thought I would write a list of pro-transparency ideas that would be fairly small and reasonably easily to implement – though not all are uncontentious. I am an eternal optimist and I hope that lots of political parties will copy these ideas and put them in their manifestoes.
Increase the number of bodies covered by the Freedom of Information Act
- Make all exam boards subject to FOI in respect of the administration of public examinations.
- Make the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) subject to FOI.
- Make all housing associations subject to FOI.
- Make all trust ports subject to FOI.
- Make the Panel on Takeovers and Mergers subject to FOI.
- Make Returning Officers and Electoral Registration Officers in public elections subject to FOI.
- Make ‘any person providing health, education, social care, criminal justice services under a contract made with a public authority where the provision of the service is function of that authority’ subject to FOI
Make Freedom of Information Act 2000 more effective by making the whole process quicker
- Introduce fixed time limits for internal reviews.
- Introduce fixed time limits for public interest extensions.
Reduce the “get out clauses” and “loopholes” … and make transparency laws more robust
- Toughen up the wording – require public bodies to demonstrate ‘substantial prejudice’ before using an exemption to withhold information, rather than simply demonstrating ‘prejudice’.
- Close the loophole that means that HMRC does not have to release information about corporate tax payers even when it can be shown that the public interest is harmed by non-disclosure.
- Scrap the Ministerial Veto – take away right of ministers to overrule the independent Information Commissioner (if appropriate it could be retained for matters of National Security only).
- Remove the exemption that exists in respect of communications with the Royal Family and Royal Household – this is in line with the idea that everyone should be equal before the law
- Only allow information to be withheld under the “intended for future publication” exemption if the public body has made a public commitment to publish the information within 90 days.
- Make the BBC more accountable by replacing the BBC’s “derogation” with a properly drafted exemption.
- Bodies subject to the FOI should be required to publish a functioning email contact address on their website (with due prominence) – Note companies providing services through websites are already legally required to do this
- Where the opinion of a “qualified person” is used to block disclosure that person should have to be named in the refusal notice.
- Make all companies owned 90% or more by one or more public bodies subject to FOI.
- Make the House of Commons Commission and the Corporate Officers of the Houses of Parliament subject to FOI to avoid the present situation where the senior officials working in the Palace of Westminster will not answer FOI requests while Parliament is dissolved.
- Make it easier for people to request information about themselves under Data Protection law by only allowing exemptions to be used where it is in the public interest, this already happens for FOI exemptions.
Make publicly owned companies accountable
Say those owned 90~ by one or more public bodies
- give the public the right to attend Board Meetings of public companies, except those parts of the agenda where there was a good reason to go into closed session.
- require each director’s vote to be minuted on all formal decisions.
- require (draft) minutes of open meetings to be published online within 15 working days of the day on which the meeting finishes and that final minutes are published online promptly once approved.
Be flexible on format when supplying public sector information
- allow applicants to specify that they would like to be supplied with photocopies of original documents containing requested information
- all Bills, and bill-related data, should be published by Parliament in a structured machine-readable way, as soon as is possible after the data has been generated – see FreeOurBills campaign
Extend Whistleblower Protection
- Give students the same whistleblower protection that employees already have.
- Give non-executive directors the same whistleblower protection that employees already have.
Make it easier for people to reuse public sector information and hold the public sector to account without fear of litigation
- establish a clear legal right to film any local council meeting – the same should apply to any other meeting of a decision-making public body that is open to the general public or any section of the public
- reduce the normal term of Crown Copyright to 10 years rather than 50.
- end the present anomaly where shorthand writers who transcribe judgements which have been given verbally own the copyright in the transcribed version
- amend libel laws to protect free speech in relation to private companies contracted to provide public services.
- amend libel laws to protect free speech in relation to regulatory activities carried out by industry bodies.
- change copyright law to allow the British Library to archive websites
- amend Data Protection law to protect all public interest publications, not just journalism, literature and art – we should also be looking to protect online archives and encyclopedias, occasional bloggers etc