Freedom of Information Act

Oral Answers to Questions — Cabinet Office – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 27th January 2016.

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Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

The Government are committed to transparency and freedom of information. The independent commission on freedom of information was established to review the working of the Act and we will consider the report when it is received.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Scottish National Party, Glenrothes

There are any number of instances that we can all point to where the publication of information that the authorities would rather have kept hidden has led to significant public benefits. The expenses affair in this place was one example. I do not know of a single case where the release of information through the Freedom of Information Act has caused any significant public damage. Does the Minister agree that any change to the Act should be designed to make it easier, rather than harder, for citizens to find out what the Government are doing?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

I am happy to hear more from the hon. Gentleman because I am a great supporter of freedom of information and the Act, and of transparency. We have to make sure that its workings are accurate and we look forward to listening and seeing what the commission comes up with when it reports in due course.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

Is it not the case that introducing fees for FOI requests would reduce opportunities for exposing injustice and bad practice? Will the Minister take this opportunity to rule out introducing any such fees?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

The hon. Gentleman tempts me, but I shall wait until the commission reports. We will respond in due course.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

May I inform my right hon. Friend that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee will be scrutinising those proposals very carefully indeed? We want to make sure that the judges are interpreting the Freedom of Information Act as Parliament truly intended, but I can tell him that there is no going back on freedom of information.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

Indeed. The Freedom of Information Act has brought to light many things that it is in the public interest to have in the public domain. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend’s Committee will scrutinise the proposals very carefully, not least to ensure that the will of Parliament is the law of the land. I look forward to working with him on that.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

I did not have to use the Freedom of Information Act because I went on to the gov.uk website to find out that the excellent Mark Price, managing director of Waitrose, is now a non-executive director of the board of the Cabinet Office. May I say what a wise choice that is? What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that similar people are appointed to other Government Departments?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

Crikey! Where to start? Mark Price is, indeed, an incredibly impressive businessman and I look forward to working with him on the Cabinet Office board. That information was published on our award-winning gov.uk website, which has had billions of hits because there is so much good information to be found there.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Is the Minister aware that despite all his fine words, there are many, including me, who believe that the purpose of the review is to undermine the Freedom of Information Act introduced by a Labour Government? So many of the abuses that have been revealed have become known to the public only as a result of the Act. The Government should be defending freedom of information, not trying to undermine it.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was listening, but I said that much information is in the public domain, and it is in the public interest that it is public, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. That is my position. I look forward to hearing what the commission has to say about the operational working of the Act to ensure that it is working in the way Parliament intended.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

It is confusing to hear the Minister claim to be such a fan of transparency, given that the Cabinet Office has set up a commission designed to weaken FOI—an ex-coalition Minister has described that as a “rigged jury”—botched the release of Cabinet papers, watered down consultation rules, and is now being investigated by the Information Commissioner for withholding thousands of items of spending data. If sunlight really is the best disinfectant, why has the Minister now abolished every single senior civil service post with responsibility for transparency?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

As a matter of fact, we are the most transparent Government ever. What is more, the hon. Lady will be delighted to know that only this morning the Cabinet Office published further spending information to ensure that we keep that mantle.