Points of View 13th October 2015

New consultation document confirms that sweeping restrictions to FOI being considered | Campaign for Freedom of Information

by Tim Hughes

Tim is coordinator of the UK Open Government Network.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information, an OGN member, published the following press release in response to the Commission on Freedom of Information’s call for evidence.

Sweeping restrictions to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act are being considered by the body set up to consider the legislation, according to the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

After sitting for 3 months, the Commission on Freedom of Information, set up by the government this July, has today finally invited the public to submit evidence to it [1]. Its consultation document confirms that it is considering whether public authorities’ internal discussions should be made more difficult to obtain and whether ministers’ ability to veto disclosures should be strengthened. It is also considering changing the way the Act is enforced, which could reduce the public’s rights, and reducing the Act’s ‘burden’ on public authorities. Off the record briefings suggest this could include charging for FOI requests.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information’s director, Maurice Frankel, said “charges would be likely to deter large numbers of requests. When a €15 application fee was introduced under Ireland’s freedom of information act in 2003, it resulted in the number of requests falling to 25% of its previous level. The same could occur here, reducing the scrutiny of public authorities and making it easier for them to say they are doing one thing when they are really doing the opposite.” [2]

The consultation document also describes a range of options for protecting an authority’s internal discussions from disclosure, including removing such material from the Act’s scope altogether. Currently internal discussions can be disclosed on public interest grounds, but the consultation document says this creates “uncertainty” which could lead to less frank recording of views.

Mr Frankel said that some of the options being considered “could mean that a public authority’s internal discussions would remain secret for decades even if they revealed that critical mistakes had been made, inconvenient evidence had been ignored or poor decisions taken to satisfy commercial or other lobby groups”.

The Campaign pointed out that Jack Straw, one of the Commission’s five members, is on record as calling for the Act to be amended to prevent internal discussions being disclosed in the public interest and for charges to be made for FOI requests.

Last month more than 140 organisations wrote to the Prime Minister expressing concern about the Commission’s membership and terms of reference, pointing out that the government would normally expressly avoid appointing members who had already reached and expressed firm views on the issues [3].

Further information:

Maurice Frankel or Katherine Gundersen: 0207 324 2519

Notes:

[1] The consultation document can be downloaded from https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/independent-commission-on-freedom-of-information-call-for-evidence. The deadline for evidence is 20 November 2015.

[2] For the impact of fees in Ireland see, Review of the Operation of the Freedom of information (Amendment) Act 2003, June 2004 https://www.oic.gov.ie/en/Publications/Special-Reports/Investigations-Compliance/Review-of-the-Operation-of-FOI2003/-Review-of-the-Operation-of-the-Freedom-of-Information-Amendment-Act-2003.pdf. Last year, the Irish government scrapped application fees.

[3] https://www.cfoi.org.uk/2015/09/140-press-and-campaign-bodies-urge-pm-not-to-weaken-foi-act/

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