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Minister rejects FOI research exemption—again

Home Office minister Oliver Eden has once again rejected a proposal to exempt universities from having to release unpublished research data in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The potential amendment was discussed as part of the Protection of Freedoms Bill, which is sponsored by the Home Office and reached the report stage in the House of Lords on 15 February. It is designed to give universities the right to refuse complying with FOI requests for unpublished research data where it could harm the university or the people or partners involved.

The amendment was previously rejected by Eden during a committee stage debate in the House of Lords on 12 January, where he argued that there was “little evidence” to support the proposal.

The amendment discussed on 15 February was moved by Liberal Democrat peer Sal Brinton. Several peers supported the proposal during the debate, including crossbencher Ronald Oxburgh and Labour peers David Pollock and Tessa Blackstone.

One of the arguments made was that, as a similar exemption already exists under Scottish, Irish and US legislation, the UK might become an unattractive place to do research. Another was that the lack of exemption makes it hard for universities to undertake commercial collaborations.

“The point is that large multinational companies have plenty of choices about who they choose to do business with. We want them to do business with UK universities,” said Liberal Democrat peer Floella Benjamin.

“This government and the one before them have done much to encourage this kind of research collaboration. But universities across the country believe that this legislation is a barrier to all that. We must take that risk seriously,” she said.

Blackstone argued that universities are not “public bodies under any conventional definition” and asked Eden to clarify how they are to be defined “with respect to commercial interests”.

Eden would not accept the amendment but said the issue should be discussed in post-legislative scrutiny. The House of Commons Justice Committee has launched an inquiry into the 2000 FOI act and is expected to produce a report with recommendations on the issue.

Eden said he would write to the chairman of the committee to “make sure that the concerns … are relayed to him.

“We are all agreed that the UK’s position at the forefront of international research must be protected and enhanced. I would not want to do anything that could endanger that.

“We understand the point that the universities made. From discussions that I have had, from the debate and from Committee, I am well aware of the concern that exists in the sector on this issue,” he added.

Exemption has been backed by several organisations, including Universities UK, which has published a parliamentary briefing on the issue.

Vivienne Stern, head of political affairs at UUK, told Research Fortnight Today that while she is hoping that the justice committee will recommend the exemption, the UUK would nevertheless call for an independent review on the operation of freedom of information in universities.