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MPs back universities’ plea for FOI exemption

The House of Commons Justice Committee has backed calls by higher-education institutions to exempt universities from having to release unpublished research data in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The recommendation was made in the committee’s 26 July report on its scrutiny of the 2000 FOI Act. A similar exemption already exists in Scotland, and the committee says it’s time that England and Wales followed. It adds that the exemption is required to “protect ongoing research”.

The news will be welcomed by universities. The vice-chancellors’ group, Universities UK, and several others have been lobbying for the exemption for some time. In evidence to the inquiry, several institutions and groups listed concerns with the legislation, including difficulties in collaborating with private companies and the risk of private providers obtaining “commercially sensitive information” from their public competitors.

An amendment to the Act was discussed as part of the recent Protection of Freedoms Bill, which was given Royal Assent in May this year, but was denied by home office minister Oliver Eden on the grounds that that there was “little evidence” to support the proposal.

Welcoming the committee’s report, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said, “Having to release incomplete data and research results before the peer review process has taken place risks undermining the reputation of individual research groups, institutions and UK research as a whole. There have also been a number of high-profile instances of the Act being used by organisations as a tool to scupper research being carried out in controversial areas of study.

“With universities now receiving a significant and growing amount of funding from private sources, this has significant implications for the way in which Freedom of Information legislation is applied. We must ensure that there is a level playing field in relation to private higher education providers and we support calls for this area to be reviewed,” she added.