Maurice Frankel. Director. Campaign for the Freedom of Information
If you are a researcher, hoping that official files will be opened to scrutiny as a result of the government's draft freedom of information bill,don't hold your breath.
The good news is that the bill covers a wide range of public bodies, including universities. On request (and payment of a small fee) they will have to release information about all kinds of matters, including funding and appointment procedures. If universities withhold information they can be challenged by complaint to a new commissioner who can order disclosure.
But the bad news is that the bill includes a host of exemptions that will give universities considerable scope to carry on in secret.
Until now, overseas FoI laws have been used by staff and students to throw light on issues such as discriminatory selection processes and suspected academic fraud. But under these proposals, universities will be able to refuse access to information on a variety of grounds. For example, disclosures that, in their "opinion", would prejudice the "free and frank" provision of advice or exchange of views or "otherwise prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs" could be blocked.
In one Australian case, a journalist asked to see a report into allegations that a medical researcher had knowingly published invalid cancer data. The scientist tried to block the report's disclosure. But the Queensland Information Commissioner held that even if the information had been exempt, there was an overriding public interest in disclosure.
Under Britain's proposed law, the commissioner would not be able to make such rulings: only the institution itself can make decisions on public interest grounds. But a university that is itself guilty of some misconduct is unlikely to see an overriding public interest in exposing its own shortcomings. And the commissioner will not be able to force it to.
Nor will the bill help academics researching the role of government. The draft proposals state that all information relating to "the formulation or development of government policy" will be exempt from disclosure. This rules out the disclosure not only of policy advice but of factual information or scientific reports.
Academic researchers should, however, find it easier to see old records not yet released under the 30-year rule. These can be applied for individually under the bill, and any refusal challenged by complaint to the commissioner.