News 22nd September 2015

140 press and campaign bodies urge PM not to weaken FOI Act | Campaign for Freedom of Information

by Tim Hughes

Tim is coordinator of the UK Open Government Network.

140 media bodies, campaign groups and others [1], including members of the Open Government Network, have written to the Prime Minister expressing ‘serious concern’ at the government’s approach to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

The organisations are particularly concerned at the Commission on Freedom of Information, announced on July 17th this year. They say its terms of reference make clear that ‘its purpose is to consider new restrictions to the Act’ [2] and that there is no indication that it is expected to consider how the right of access might need to be improved.

It points out that the Commission’s 5 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.

The organisations note that one of the Commission’s members, former Home Secretary Jack Straw, ‘has repeatedly maintained that the Act provides too great a level of disclosure’. It says he has called for information about government policy formulation to be automatically withheld, regardless of any public interest in disclosure; criticised the Supreme Court for ‘exceeding its powers’ by overturning the ministerial veto in the Prince Charles correspondence case; called for charges to be introduced for FOI requests and said it should be significantly easier to refuse requests on cost grounds. Mr Straw’s publicly expressed views cover all the main areas within the Commission’s terms of reference, the letter says. The Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, publicly commended Mr Straw’s views in the Commons, shortly before the Commission was appointed – reinforcing concerns about the government’s intentions towards the Act.

Another Commission member is Dame Patricia Hodgson, Ofcom’s chair. In 2012 Ofcom stated that ‘there is no doubt’ that the FOI Act had had a ‘chilling effect’, discouraging the proper recording of information by public authorities. The letter points out that deciding whether there has been a ‘chilling effect’ is likely to be one of the Commission’s priorities. Ofcom has also 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.”

The letter also expresses concern at government proposals to introduce fees for tribunal appeals against the Information Commissioner’s FOI decisions. These are currently free of charge. 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. “Requesters often seek information about matters of public concern, so deterring them from appealing will deny the public information of wider public interest” the letter adds. It adds that the new fees are “unlikely to discourage public authorities from challenging pro-disclosure decisions, so the move will lead to an inequality of arms between requesters and authorities”.

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.”

Last month, a separate letter, signed by 31 civil society organisations was sent to the Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock on the subject [4]. The organisations are all engaged with the UK government as part of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), an international initiative involving governments and civil society bodies from 65 countries. The organisations warned that “Proposals that limit the scope and function of the FOI Act, as these appear designed to do, are fundamentally incompatible with the Government’s wish to become and claim to already be “the most transparent government in the world”. The purpose of the OGP, in which the signatories are all involved, is to help make government more open: these proposals would have the opposite effect. They are entirely contrary to the spirit and purpose of the OGP.”

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Notes

[1] 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: 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, Johnston Press Editorial Board, 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.

Campaign groups and others signing the letter include: Act Now Training, Action on Smoking and Health, Against Violence and Abuse, Animal Aid, ARTICLE 19, Article 39, Big Brother Watch, British Deaf Association, British Humanist Association, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, Burma Campaign UK, Campaign Against Arms Trade, Campaign for Better Transport, Campaign for National Parks, Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, Centre for Public Scrutiny, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, Children England, Children’s Rights Alliance for England, Community Reinvest, CORE, Corporate Watch, Corruption Watch, Cruelty Free International, CTC the national cycling charity, Debt Resistance UK, Deighton Pierce Glynn, Democratic Audit, Disabled People Against Cuts, Down’s Syndrome Association, Drone Wars UK, English PEN, Equality and Diversity Forum, Finance Uncovered, Friends of the Earth, Friends, Families and Travellers, Gender Identity Research & Education Society, Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, Global Witness, Greenpeace, Hacked Off, Inclusion London, Index on Censorship, INQUEST, Involve, Jubilee Debt Campaign, Labour Campaign for Human Rights, Law Centres Network, Leigh Day, Liberty, London Mining Network, LUSH, medConfidential, Migrants’ Rights Network, Move Your Money UK, mySociety, NAT (National AIDS Trust), National Commission on Forced Marriage, Odysseus Trust, Open Data Manchester, Open Knowledge, Open Rights Group, OpenCorporates, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation, Prisoners’ Advice Service, Privacy International, Public Concern at Work, Public Interest Research Centre, Public Law Project, Race on the Agenda, Renewable Energy Foundation, Reprieve, Republic, Request Initiative, Rights Watch (UK), RoadPeace, Salmon & Trout Conservation (UK), South Northants Action Group, Spinwatch, Stop HS2, TaxPayers’ Alliance, The Corner House, Transform Justice, Trust for London, UNISON, Unite the Union, Unlock Democracy, War on Want, We Own It, WhatDoTheyKnow, Women’s Resource Centre, WWF-UK, Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, 38 Degrees and 4in10 Campaign.

[2] For details of the Commission’s composition and terms of reference see: www.gov.uk/government/speeches/freedom-of-information-new-commission. For views on the Commission see: https://www.cfoi.org.uk/campaigns/stop-foi-restrictions

[3] The text of the letter sent by organisations involved in the Open Government Partnership and list of signatories can be found at: www.opengovernment.org.uk/resource/ogn-letter-concerns-regarding-freedom-of-information-commission-and-tribunal-fees.

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