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Procedural values such as transparency seem to be all the rage. I’m unsure why. I find them obscure and, even if we can make sense of them, I think they tend to be given far more significance than they deserve. Some of these problems are illustrated by the value assigned to transparency in the three recent decisions by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).1 These judgments are made in relation to deliberations about mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccination by three different Department of Health (DH) committees.2–4
In brief, an unnamed applicant asked the DH for full copies of the minutes from three different committees (the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation; the MMR Sub-Committee; and the Adverse Reactions Committee) for the period 1986 to 1992. The DH pointed out that edited versions of these minutes were already in the public domain and that no further details would be made available. Perhaps the most important reason for this conclusion was the existence of an explicit duty of confidentiality to committee members. If particular points or arguments were attributed to named individuals, then this might result in inhibited discussion and a weakened policy-making process. The DH notified the applicant of the right to appeal to the ICO, and the applicant appealed. The ICO is empowered by the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (and other legislation) to promote access to official information. The presumption upon which it functions is that information ought to be available unless there are justifiable reasons for this not to be the case. In these three related cases, the ICO decided that none of the reasons provided by the DH were, in the end, significant enough to justify withholding the missing information and ordered that full minutes be provided to the complainant. My concerns …
Competing interests: None.
Angus Dawson is Senior Lecturer in Ethics and Philosophy at Keele University in the UK. He is also Senior Research Fellow at the Joint Centre for Bioethics, University of Toronto, Canada, for the 2008–2009 academic year.
Provenance and peer review: commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
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