MORE THAN 140 media bodies, campaign groups and others have written to the Prime Minister expressing ‘serious concern’ at the government’s approach to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
They are worried a new commission might turn back the clock on the public’s right to know how government operates and how public money is spent.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (and a Scottish Act from 2002) gave the public and journalists the right to ask questions about local authorities, the NHS, government departments, the police and many others – and they have to answer.
But the act has not been without its critics and on July 17 the Government announced a Commission on Freedom of Information.
Publishers like Johnston Press, publisher of The Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post, are concerned the commission is made up of politicians who are critical of the act and people who are subject to it, who are likely to restrict its remit.
There is also concern at government plans to introduce fees for tribunal appeals when someone disagrees with a ruling by the Information Commissioner. These are currently free of charge.
The letter from publishers and campaign groups has been co-ordinated by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, a lobbying group which campaigned for several decades to have the act passed as law.
The letter says the commission’s “purpose is to consider new restrictions to the Act”.
It points out that the Commission’s five members include two former home secretaries, a former permanent secretary and the chair of a body subject to the FOI Act.
A government perspective on the Act’s operation “will be well represented on the Commission itself” the letter says.
Among the commission members are Former Home Secretary Jack Straw, who has said the FOI act “provides too great a level of disclosure”. When in government, Mr Straw called for information about government policy formulation to be automatically withheld, regardless of any public interest in its disclosure. Mr Straw called for charges to be introduced for FOI requests and said it should be significantly easier to refuse requests on cost grounds.
Dame Patricia Hodgson, chair of the communications regulator Ofcom. In 2012 Ofcom said “there is no doubt” the FOI Act had a “chilling effect”, discouraging the proper recording of information by public authorities. Ofcom has called for it to be made easier for authorities to refuse requests on cost grounds.
The letter says:
“An independent Commission is expected to reach its views based on the evidence presented to it rather than the pre-existing views of its members.
“Indeed, in appointing members to such a body we would expect the government to expressly avoid those who appear to have already reached and expressed firm views. It has done the opposite. The government does not appear to intend the commission to carry out an independent and open minded inquiry. Such a review cannot provide a proper basis for significant changes to the FOI Act.”
Jeremy Clifford, chairman of Johnston Press editorial board said: “Johnston Press editors and journalists have used the FOI act consistently over the past decade to inform readers on many, many issues that directly affect them.
“We are deeply concerned at any plans to restrict the act and urge David Cameron to consider the membership of this commission and its remit.”
The letter also expresses concern at government proposals to introduce fees for tribunal appeals against the Information Commissioner’s FOI decisions, currently free.
Government proposals would require requesters to pay £100 for an appeal based on written submissions and £600 for one involving an oral hearing.
The letter says the introduction of fees for Employment Tribunal appeals has led to a drastic decrease in the number of cases brought and says a similar effect on the number of FOI appeals is likely.
The organisations say “We regard the FOI Act as a vital mechanism of accountability which has transformed the public’s rights to information and substantially improved the scrutiny of public authorities. We would deplore any attempt to weaken it.”
What is the Freedom of Information Act 2000?
The Act became law in 2005 and allows public access to information held by 100,000 public authorities in the UK (Scotland is covered by a similar act from 2002).
Everyone can request official information from councils, government departments and agencies – and they have to tell you.
Public authorities of all levels are covered by the act – the police, the armed forces, regulators, the BBC, the Houses of Parliament, NHS bodies and many more.
The act does not cover personal data (that falls under the Data Protection Act) and some information is exempt. But it does allow ordinary people, journalists and campaigners the right to know how public money is spent
Access to information helps the public make public authorities accountable for their actions and allows public debate to be better informed and more productive.
More than 400,000 information requests were made in the first ten years from the act becoming law in 2005.
Journalists in all types of newspaper routinely make FOI requests to uncover information for stories.
Some things revealed by FOI requests:
Publication of the individual mortality rates for all heart surgeons working in the NHS highlighted varying performance levels across UK hospitals.
Public sector salaries higher than £150,000 were first released under FOI - but they are now routinely published.
Prince Charles’ ‘black spider memos’ - letters to government ministers – were published after an FOI request by the Guardian.
The 2009 revelations about MPs’ expenses would not have been made available had parliamentary authorities not been preparing a heavily redacted document for FOI release (the information was later leaked to the press).
Who has signed the letter expressing concern at the Commission on Freedom of Information?
The letter to the Prime Minister, which has been co-ordinated by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, has been signed by media bodies including: Johnston Press Editorial Board, Archant, Belfast Telegraph, BSkyB, CN Group Limited, Computer Weekly, Coventry Telegraph, Daily Mail, Evening Standard, Exaro, Guardian News & Media Limited, i, Independent, Independent on Sunday, KM Group, Liverpool Echo, Loughborough and Shepshed Echo, Mail on Sunday, Metro, National Union of Journalists, Newbury Weekly News, News Media Association, Newsquest, Nursing Standard, NWN Media, Oxford Mail & The Oxford Times, Press Association, Press Gazette, Private Eye, Pulse, Society of Editors, South Wales Argus, Southern Daily Echo, Southport Visitor, Sun, Sunday Life, The Sunday Times, Telegraph Media Group, The Irish News, The Sunday Post, The Times, Trinity Mirror, Trinity Mirror Regionals and Welfare Weekly.
More than 100 campaigning groups have also signed.