Freedom of Information: News

Tory minister says transparency laws are ‘malign’

Lord Callanan accused the public of having ‘forms set up on their word processors’ to submit FOI requests ‘with gay abandon’

Jenna Corderoy
Jenna Corderoy
2 December 2021, 4.50pm
Lord Martin Callanan, a government minister, called charging the public for FOI requests an 'excellent idea'
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Gints Ivuskans/Alamy Live News

A government minister has been criticised for calling the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) a “truly malign piece of legislation”.

Lord Callanan, a minister at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, said that charging the public fees for requesting government information was an “excellent idea”.

He made the comments during a parliamentary debate last week, while defending the government’s decision that transparency laws should not apply to a new scientific research agency.

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Callanan said: “I fail to see how the processology of government benefits at all from FOI disclosures. I find that people just modify their behaviour and communication to take account of the fact that private conversations may be released in the future.

He added: “I genuinely do not think that it achieves anything at all.”

Transparency campaigners said the minister’s comments “reflect the government’s deep dislike of being held to account”.

Public authorities are ordinarily subject to FOI laws, but the government has insisted that its new research agency, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), should not have “the burden of processing” questions from the public.

No minister has ever referred to FOI with such undisguised contempt

Katherine Gundersen, the Campaign for Freedom of Information

Defending the decision, Callanan said: “I do not know how many people across government are currently employed to respond to the hundreds if not thousands of FOI requests that we get. But given the bundles of documentation that sometimes pass my desk, there must be many hundreds of civil servants engaged in doing nothing other than responding to these fishing expeditions.”

He also accused members of the public of having “forms set up on their word processors to submit [FOI requests] with gay abandon”.

Katherine Gundersen, from the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: “No minister has ever referred to FOI with such undisguised contempt.”

Last week, the outgoing information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, said she was “frustrated and disappointed” by the government’s refusal to have its FOI process independently audited.

Denham also said it was “really harmful” for ARIA to be excluded from FOI and called on ministers to “walk the walk when it comes to transparency”.

openDemocracy requested copies of evidence that informed the government’s decision to exempt ARIA from FOI but it refused to provide any evidence. It claimed that officials needed a “safe space to debate live policy issues away from external interference”.

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Earlier this year, the campaign group Unlock Democracy sent a legal letter to ministers – in a bid to reveal how the new research agency will spend its budget.

“When a minister describes FOI as 'truly malign' you know it is working,” said Tom Brake, the head of Unlock Democracy. “Ministers hate FOI because it reveals the truly malign actions or cover-ups of government and public bodies. The minister should be pressing for more FOI, not less – and for FOI requests to remain free.”

The idea of charging fees for FOI requests was backed by the incoming information commissioner, John Edwards. He told MPs it was “legitimate” to ask the public to meet the cost of digging out the relevant information.

But campaigners argue that fees would “harm the accountability and transparency of the wider public sector”.

Alex Parsons, a researcher at mySociety, said: “This slow undermining of FOI damages the public's right to access important information about how their government works.”

A government spokesperson told openDemocracy: “The Freedom of Information Act is an important check and balance – it helps ensure the accountability of public bodies and the proper spending of taxpayers’ money. The Act takes into account the public interest when disclosing information.

"We remain fully committed to our transparency agenda and routinely disclose information well beyond our Freedom of Information Act obligations. However, we also recognise the need to balance the public need to make information available with our duty to protect sensitive information and national security.”

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