ARIA is apparently modelled on the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is subject to FOI laws in the United States.
Katherine Gundersen of the Campaign for Freedom of Information said that while the new research agency would be spending hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money on high-risk projects, “the government apparently wants it to be less accountable to the public than parish councils, which are subject to FOI.
“The FOI Act already exempts information which would harm both commercial and research interests. Allowing ARIA to ignore FOI would reflect a deep-seated government aversion to FOI rather than any need to protect legitimate interests,” Gundersen added.
“There is a pattern here. The government has proposed a new body to investigate serious risks to patient safety which would be subject to a prohibition on disclosure. A new environmental regulator will be prohibited from releasing information apparently overriding the public’s right to environmental information. The government seems intent on setting aside the public’s right to know one body at a time.”
Concerns about FOI in Britain have been growing. A recent report released by openDemocracy showed that FOI response rates are at their lowest level since the Freedom of Information Act came into force 15 years ago.
Last year, openDemocracy revealed details of a secretive unit inside Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office that vets FOI requests from journalists, campaigners and others. This ‘Clearing House’ was described as “Orwellian” by the head of the National Union of Journalists.
openDemocracy is currently working with the law firm Leigh Day on a legal bid to force the Cabinet Office to reveal full details of how the Clearing House operates, and more than 45,000 people have signed a petition to Michael Gove calling for urgent action.
A government source said ARIA would publish its accounts and report on its activities annually. “The new body is being set up so it can take fast, agile decisions without bureaucracy,” they told the Times.