The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 2000 is an important piece of legislation. Correctly used, it can bring into the public domain information that would otherwise be unknown to the general public. Yesterday (31 January) it led, indirectly, to the revelation that the James Bond villain that Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, would most like to be is Sir Hugo Drax in Ian Fleming’s novel “Moonraker”.
The Education Secretary was answering questions by MPs (and the public via Twitter at #AskGove) during a session of the Education Select Committee. In the course of his evidence, Mr. Gove also revealed that he has not yet complied with the guidance from the Information Commissioner last month that private e-mails which discussed official business were subject to the FOIA 2000. Mr Gove told MPs that he was “awaiting fresh civil service advice” before complying.
Mr. Gove was clearly too busy discussing with the Education Select Committee how James Bond, with the help of Special Branch agent Gala Brand who became C.I.A agent Dr. Holly Goodhead in the film, sabotaged Drax's “Moonraker” missile launch to know that on Monday (30 January) the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) had released a new and, I think, very helpful plain English Guide to help public authorities better understand what the FOIA 2000 says and how to apply it in practice.
In 56 pages the guide looks at the law in a sensible and straightforward fashion and explains in simple terms what public authorities and organisations need to do to comply, including how to respond to requests and decide what information they should routinely publish. What is, I think, particularly useful is that the guide answers many frequently asked questions and gives practical examples to illustrate how to apply the FOIA 2000 in practice.
For any busy practitioner who is currently trying and failing to get answers from a public authority, I recommend simply forwarding the guide to the person dealing with his or her request.
It is surely just a coincidence that yesterday (31 January), the day after the ICO published its new guide, the government issued a 133-page memorandum to the Justice Select Committee containing its “Post-Legislative Assessment of the (FOIA) 2000”.
The memorandum sets out the government's position on what it considers to be the primary concerns about the FOIA 2000 and concludes that “the Government’s commitment to transparency stands alongside its commitment to reduce regulatory burdens. A question worthy of consideration is whether the current FOIA regime strikes the right balance between those two objectives”.
The fate of the FOIA 2000 is thus uncertain unlike that of Drax who, as film goers will recall, was fatally wounded by Bond’s poison dart wrist watch before being escorted into an airlock and ejected to die in space.