A recent ruling by the information commissioner, Christopher Graham, may allow access to private emails and text messages between government ministers.
The ruling has sparked fears within government that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 is being interpreted too widely. Now the chairman of the public administration committee, Bernard Jenkins, is considering whether to launch a select committee inquiry into the matter in the New Year.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 allows any citizen in England, Wales or Northern Ireland to request information on any subject of their choosing from public bodies including councils, local government offices and schools. Providing there is no good reason to refuse the request, the public body has 20 working days to supply the information. Scotland has its own Freedom of Information Act which works in roughly the same way.
The new ruling appears to extend the remit of the Act to information held in private emails and on telephones of public sector employees, which would include MPs and government ministers, providing the information is related to their official business. However the outgoing head of the civil service, Sir Gus O’Donnell has recently said that he believed that the Act did not apply to cabinet discussions.
However, in his controversial ruling last month Christopher Graham seemed to suggest that access to this kind of information should probably have been available from the beginning.
“It should not come as a surprise to public authorities to have the clarification that information held in private email accounts can be subject to freedom of information law if it relates to official business. This has always been the case; the act covers all recorded information in any form,” he said.
The Ministry of Justice is already committed to reviewing some aspects of the Act after submitting a memorandum to parliament. This will look at the operation of the Act, the cost of its implementation and how it affects civil service policy.
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