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Cabinet Secretary: FOI Act is stifling free policy debate

'Virtually everything subject to a public interest test'

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Sir Gus O'Donnell told a committee of MPs on Wednesday that FOI laws had a "very negative impact on the freedom of policy discussions".

"The problem with the Freedom of Information Act is that virtually everything is subject to a public interest test," Sir Gus told the Public Administration Select Committee.

"When I give advice to anyone, when we have a conversation around the Cabinet table, I cannot guarantee to Cabinet Ministers that they can actually say without fear or favour if they disagree with something that that information will remain private, because there could be an FOI request," Sir Gus said.

The Freedom of Information Act and the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act came into full force on 1 January 2005, giving individuals the right for the first time to demand access to information held by Government departments and public bodies.

Under the laws anyone of any nationality living anywhere in the world can make a written request for information and expect a response within 20 working days. The public authority will be obliged to meet that request unless exemptions apply or unless meeting it will be too costly or difficult.

Some information can be held back under qualified and absolute exemptions. However, where information can be withheld under a qualified exemption organisations are still obliged to conduct a 'public interest test' to determine whether it is right for information to be disclosed upon request.

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