Written by By Miles Watson, CNN
The Conservative Party has rejected a proposed compromise to release documents detailing why 54 scientists were fired from government departments.
The controversy surrounds a Freedom of Information request — or FOI — in 2016 by researcher Stephen Foster, who asked to see the file detailing the sackings, which included University of Bristol climate researchers Dr. James Hansen and Dr. Michael Mann.
The Conservatives subsequently backed the Government Digital Service (GDS), the unit which helps government departments deliver digital services, in arguing that the material held under FOI is subject to protections that outweigh the individual’s right to access it.
The Tories initially released tens of thousands of documents in 2017, a process called disclosure. However, they halted this in 2018 in response to concerns over personal data protection.
The Deputy Conservative leader, Simon Brodkin, expressed fears about what the details would reveal about people in the public and private sectors. He said the Conservative Party would not support any FOI exemption clause that “does not protect fundamental rights to privacy or protection of personal data.”
A senior Tory also claimed in June 2018 that climate change was a “debate you can shut down with a forklift truck” and suggested Foster had not asked for enough information to make a conclusion.
Overall, the decision is likely to heighten tensions over freedom of information in a UK which does not have a single organization or politician dedicated to oversight of the act. The policy is among the many issues that has raised concerns ahead of May’s general election, with Digital Minister Matt Hancock expected to face heavy criticism after he told lawmakers that his department had no human database that covered all the policy areas it was involved in.
“The public has a fundamental right to information, regardless of whether there is a FOI request,” said Conservative MP Antoinette Sandbach on Monday.
“The Government’s new legislation on freedom of information is already getting us nowhere. Every time we make a decision on FOI, we are making it harder for people to use the law to hold their government to account.”
Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington had asked the Treasury to consider releasing the list of dismissed scientists under threat of a legal challenge by ExxonMobil in July 2017. He claimed the 50-year-old decision that led to the sackings was a “policy settled in time and by policy makers.”
A statement from ExxonMobil said on Monday that it was encouraged that the government had agreed to consider releasing the dismissed scientists’ files under FOI.
“Government has failed to put the legally-bound documents in question on public display to the public and the press,” said the company. “ExxonMobil looks forward to discussing details of the compromise with the Treasury.
“We hope that the government will work hard to adopt this compromise in law so that this critical civil service document can be made available.”