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Volume 12 Number 1
New Delhi, Spring 2005

Freedom of Information in the UK

- Justin Foxworthy
CHRI, London Office

Maurice Frankel, Campaign for Freedom of Information

Since the United Kingdom’s Freedom of Information Act 20001 came into effect on 1 January 2005, there have been nearly three thousand requests for information submitted, primarily aimed at the Ministry of Defense and the Education Department. Given that the legislation has been in effect for such a short period, it is difficult to measure the true impact of the legislation. While some requests have been granted, others have been refused on the grounds that they wouldn’t be processed within the twenty-day period stipulated by the Act.

Among the twenty three exemptions from the general right of access are included: information relating to national security, information that would prejudice international relations, commercially sensitive and confidential information, as well as data the public authority deems is in public interest to withhold.

So far, the most contentious debate has revolved around the refusal of requests from citizens, Members of Parliament and news organisations for full disclosure of the legal advice given to Prime Minister Blair by the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith on the legality of the invasion of Iraq.

In a written statement following the refusal to make Lord Goldsmith’s advice public, Christopher Simson, the Freedom of Information officer for the Attorney General’s chambers, cited the reason for refusal as need for maintaining the confidentiality of attorney-client discussions.

He also added that the legal basis for invading Iraq had been explained on a number of occasions including a memo by the Foreign Secretary to the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Attorney General’s written submission to Parliament and several other parliamentary debates.

In addition to the legal arguments, there is also a long- running political dimension to the dispute over the refusal to disclose Lord Goldsmith’s advice. Following the release of Lord Butler’s report, which found much of the pre-war intelligence unreliable, questions remain over whether the Prime Minister’s claims that Saddam Hussein posed a threat were in fact made in good faith.

Opposition politicians and civil groups are hoping that a public disclosure of Lord Goldsmith’s counsel will help piece together the timeline during the run up to war, as there have been suggestions that US plans to invade were known to the UK army well before the actual invasion took place.

Obviously, requests for potentially politically damaging information under provisions of the Act generate reluctance to disclose but free access to information also threatens the entrenched attitudes and practices of government employees regarding privileged access to sensitive material.

According to the Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, Maurice Frankel, “The real test of the Act is not what authorities reveal twenty days after a request, but what they are required to do after the Information Commissioner rules on complaints.”

While the full weight of the legislation may not be immediately felt, the real power of the Act will be determined by the decisions taken by the Information Commissioner in the appeals process and the manner in which UK governments exhibit a proactive approach to open governance in the future.


CHRI Newsletter, Spring 2005

Editors: Vaishali Mishra & Clare Doube, CHRI;
Print: Anshu Tejpal, Electronic:
Jyoti Bhargava, CHRI; Web Developer: Swayam Mohanty, CHRI.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to all contributors

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The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent international NGO mandated to ensure the practical realisation of human rights in the Commonwealth.