FOI skeptics, those embarrassed by the Act, Snooper’s Charter supporters, and senior officials close to government. 

These are the four white middle class men and one woman, with a median age of 69, which ar responsible for the review of the Freedom of Information Act that has been initiated by the government. 

The panel, which has the responsibility of looking at the FOI legislation and reporting back on it by November, “couldn’t be more Establishment” was the verdict of Channel 4 journalist Michael Crick. And the Campaign for Freedom of Information said that the group doesn’t include anyone who is pro-transparency.

The group has come under increased scrutiny, from organisations who oppose the formation of the Commission, due to its closeness to government and having members who agree that the FOI Act should be watered down.

Some of the names in the ‘independent’ panel are incredibly familiar but others might have eluded the popular knowledge. We’ve trawled through their pasts and picked out some of the parts that could show any view on what their position in terms of FOI, openness, transparency, etc, could be. (Some were a lot easier than others).

Lord Burns GCB – Chair

Official Opening of the Santander Bank branch at the University of Salford and signing of agreement between Santander and the UoS
Official Opening of the Santander Bank branch at the University of Salford and signing of agreement between Santander and the UoS

The unelected Burns was made a life peer in 1998, and has, in some capacity, conducted reviews for successive governments on the BBC’s charter, fox hunting, and has previously chaired the National Lottery Commission.

His background, which will be crucial for looking at the purposes of FOI, comes from the Whitehall role of being a former permanent secretary at the Treasury (1991-1998). His civil service career started around 1976 when he first joined the Treasury. During 20 plus years of climbing to one of the most senior public sector roles Burns will have been involved in more policy related discussions than most people in the country. He has seen the inner workings of government, been at the top of the civil service and endured government crises. It is fair to say that he can weather a storm.

“In Whitehall circles, the former grammar school boy from the north-east is also known as “Teflon Terry” because of his ability to ride out scandals,” a 2009 Guardian profile says. While the BBC, in 2000, called him a “heavyweight”.

Burns is certainly someone who is adept at dealing with controversial and often passionate arguments. His role looking at hunting in the UK is a clear testament to this. While charing this review he didn’t answer the question of whether hunting should be banned, but attempt to take an objective approach, in result, the most famous line he issued was that hunting: “seriously compromises the welfare of the fox”.

He’s the Chairman on the Santander bank, Channel 4 Television Corporate, formerly Marks & Spencer and more. In the past he has also been tipped for the head of the BBC Trust and even the Bank of England’s top job. Here’s his House of Lords profile.

Jack Straw

Jack_Straw_2He needs no introduction. The ex-Labour MP was responsible for pushing the Freedom of Information Act through parliament 15 years ago. While this might sound like a good thing – which the enactment obviously was – the bill that Straw tried to get put through the House of Commons and Lords, was nothing like what we have today.

Straw’s original FOI bill originally didn’t include a FOI regulator (the Information Commissioner), requests would have been responded to in 40 working days (not 20), there wasn’t to be a requirement to say why an FOI was refused, and much more that he was beaten back on. 

Since then Straw has gone on to say that he believes information surrounding advice given to ministers and the formulation of government policy should be restricted. This is exactly one area that the new Commission will be looking at – hardly an independent appointment.

He has said the FOI Act should be re-written: “at some levels of government – particularly at high levels – led to a reluctance to commit the process of decisions to records, so in one sense it has made it more difficult to secure accountability, rather than less”. He’s said there were “ridiculous” drafting errors. There’s also this ridiculous sentence about how opening up access to government documents is a bad thing: “We’ve ended up with a freedom of information act which ends up with more access to documents than any comparable jurisdiction. In government, we should have taken time to think it through.” There have been plenty more comments like this in the time since he was beaten down by his own MPs rebelling about the FOI bill he was pushing through government.

Of course, Straw also wouldn’t have any possible person reason to encourage more information to be released under the Act. “His possible role in the rendition of the terror suspect may yet be disclosed by FOI requests,” the Telegraph has written.

His possible role in the rendition of the terror suspect may yet be disclosed by FOI requests.

Deputy Labour Leader candidate Tom Watson also said Straw is not officially representing the party. The fact that Straw was recently caught offering cash for access, shows how the values the free-flowing of information and openness.

Dame Patricia Hodgson

Ofcom_Annual Report_AD5224 Final 6.inddDame Hodgson is the chair of broadcasting regulator, Ofcom. It’s a position that she was appointed to in 2014 and will continue to hold until 2017 – prior to this she has a background in education, having been the head of a Cambridge college and she also the chair of the School Teachers’ Review Body.

In her earlier career Hodgson was working in journalism at the BBC, working as the Director of Policy and Planning at the BBC (1993-2000). From here on her focus has mainly been on education and also sitting on a number of commissions and panels throughout the intervening years.

During this time she has mostly stayed out of the news, only appearing over speculation about her £100k-per-year pensions from the BBC, and also about comments she made around ‘girls’ being ‘held back by ladette culture’. She has mentioned making the BBC website more transparent, but it isn’t possible to find any comments about the Freedom of Information Act, or her opinions on the Act.

Lord Howard of Lympne CH QC

Michael_Howard_1099_croppedAs a former Conservative Home Secretary, secretary of state for education and employment, leader of the opposition, Michael Howard – now Lord Howard – is the distinct man of choice to support the government line on the FOI Act. It would be very surprising if he strayed from David Cameron’s statements about wanting to make the ministerial veto more powerful, or Michael Gove’s suggestion that advice to ministers on the formulation of government policy should be tighten up.

It probably won’t help that Howard was revealed to have claimed £17,000 for gardening services during the MPs’ expenses scandal. ”

His invoices from The Turned Worm Gardening Company and another gardener came to £17,351 between 2004 and 2008,” the Daily Mail said in 2009. He countered this by saying he was the 31st least expensive Conservative MP. FOI also revealed the painting of him that was commissioned by the House of Commons cost £9,400. It has also been shown that he overruled advice from civil servants when he banned Rev Sung Myung Moon from entering Britain.

In the early days of the FOI Act Howard was heavily scrutinized following an earlier infamous interview with Jeremy Paxman, where the broadcaster asked Howard the same question 12 times. In a bid to clear this up FOI requests were made for the details of his decision – the Guardian reported: “The papers released by the Home Office last night at the request of Mr Howard appear to amount to only a partial vindication of the Tory leader’s famous denials to Paxman.”

Lord Carlile of Berriew QC CBE

lordcHe’s a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords but he thinks that Edward Snowden publishing documents – which have gone on to reform mass surveillance in the US and prove that the UK illegally undertook surveillance – was a “criminal” Act. The noble Lord, who is a lawyer and previously the government’s terrorism reviewer, said the documents gave away how we catch terrorists, in a speech at the University of Sussex he went on to criticise Guardian journalists for publishing the revelations: “In my view most right-thinking people would condemn Mr Snowden’s activities and question the actions of journalists whose newspapers may benefit from his wrongdoing.”

Carlile had previously been given his CBE for his services to national security. As such he is a member of the security lobby and was one of four members of the House of Lords that tried to sneak the much criticised Snooper’s Charter into the text of another bill. 

He has also said that child criminals should be given a clean criminal record – if they have turned over a new leaf – when they turn 18. However, Carlile has been a vocal supporter of equal marriage. 

I am a journalist and author. I am a journalist at the UK edition of WIRED magazine. In 2015, my first book Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists, was published. My second book Reed Hastings: Building Netflix, was published in March 2020. I created FOI Directory in 2012 and have maintained it in my spare time ever since.