19 February 2021

No justification for UK science agency to be exempt from FoIs, say campaigners

19 February 2021

Civil liberties and press freedom campaigners have said there is “no justification” for a new “high-risk” scientific research agency to be permitted to carry out its work in secret.

Ministers have been accused of “dodging accountability” and providing the Advanced Research & Invention Agency (Aria) with less transparency than a parish council if the Government follows through on suggestions that it will exempt the agency’s work from Freedom of Information requests (FoI).

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng on Friday announced the formation of Aria – which is based on the US Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa) that helped establish the internet and GPS technology – to support cutting-edge research to discover the innovations of the future.

The new agency will spend hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money on high-risk projects but the Government apparently wants it to be less accountable to the public than parish councils – which are subject to FoI

Mr Kwarteng said, in setting up the agency, the Government was “stripping back unnecessary red tape and putting power in the hands of our innovators”.

Officials have said the agency will be afforded a higher tolerance for failure than is normal when it is up and running next year as it looks to invest in era-defining technologies.

But, despite Aria being supported with £800 million of public money until 2024, a report in The Times suggested the independent agency will not have to respond to FoIs, a key way for the public and the press to find out about the work and expenditure of publicly-funded bodies.

Campaigners have followed Labour’s lead in flagging concerns after shadow minister Ed Miliband said it was “important Aria does not have a blanket exemption from FoI laws… so taxpayers know how their money is being invested”.

The News Media Association (NMA), which represents swathes of the regional and national press, said there could be “no justification” for any transparency exemption.

Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband said it was important for Aria to be transparent about its spending (PA Media)

“Freedom of information is designed to promote transparency in government by providing taxpayers with greater visibility of how their money is spent by authorities,” said a spokesman for the NMA.

“Given the nature of its work and the significant investment of public money, there can be no justification in exempting Aria from FoI.”

Ayaz Manji, Liberty policy and campaigns officer, said: “This is a hallmark of those currently in power – dodging accountability and shielding from proper oversight at every opportunity.

“FoIs are a key way of keeping power in check, but unfortunately they are just the latest democratic tool to fall victim to this Government’s attempts to hide from public scrutiny.”

Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: “The new agency will spend hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money on high-risk projects but the Government apparently wants it to be less accountable to the public than parish councils – which are subject to FoI.

“It’s expressly modelled on a US agency, called Arpa, which is subject to the US FoI Act.

The PM's former adviser Dominic Cummings is said to have been a supporter of establishing Aria (PA Wire)

“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.”

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis) said further details about the set-up of the agency – whose creation is thought to have been supported by the Prime Minister’s former adviser Dominic Cummings when he was working in Downing Street – will be made available when legislation is introduced “in due course”.

Aria’s formation has won praise from a host of industry groups, including the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the Royal Academy of Engineering and techUK.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said ministers were right to support ventures that were not guaranteed to succeed.

“It’s important to have a wide range of approaches to funding, and accept that not everything we try will succeed when it comes to game-changing breakthroughs,” he said.

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