Freedom of Information

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 is based on the simple, democratic principle that citizens have a right to know about the decisions and actions taken in their name by the people they elect and pay for. Newspapers have used the Act to great effect, shining a light on what goes on in Westminster, Whitehall and town halls up and down the country. A huge amount of waste and incompetence has been exposed as a result.

This important piece of legilsation faces its most severe threat to date. The Government has set up the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information to look at range of restrictions which would seriously weaken the public right to know. The NMA is campaigning against any measures which would water down the Act. You can show your support in a variety of ways such as responding to the consultation, writing to your MP, or to Matthew Hancock, the Cabinet Office Minister responsible for FOI.    

Without the FOIA, our national press would not have been able to report the abuse by MPs of their tax-payer funded expenses; cracks in the nuclear reactor at Hinkley Point; that RAF pilots have been taking part in airstrikes in Syria; the persistent attempts of Prince Charles to lobby the government; and the neglect of older people by the social care system

Local and regional papers have also used the Act to unearth buried police reports on child grooming; allegations of financial mismanagement in town halls; the issuing of taxi licences to sex offenders; and the detention of mental health patients in police cells because of a shortage of hospital beds.


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FOI IN THE NEWS

The latest Government review

It is therefore not surprising that ministers and civil servants frequently call for it to be watered down.  They are doing so again, with the Government setting up a review of the Act.  

As part of the review, the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information set up by the Government to look at the Act  announced on 9 October the publication of its consultation document stating that the review would look at among other things, the need for a “safe space” for “policy development and implementation and frank advice” and the consideration of whether change is needed to ”moderate” the burden on public bodies. The consultation document also discusses strengthening the Ministerial veto, charging to make FOI requests and curbing the appeals process.”

These are familiar gripes from officialdom and the answers to them remain the same:

Sensitive advice

The Act already provides stringent protection for sensitive advice. Parliament found no evidence that this aspect of the Act damaged the national interest when it reviewed it in 2012 and there have been many examples of where it has brought to light information that is clearly in the public interest, particularlywhere ministers have not followed expert advice or where officials were urged to change advice and forecasts.

Veto

There are already a number of grounds on which ministers can block information being released, but where a court has ruled that information should be released, a minister cannot decide not to just because he/she happens to disagree. Ministers are not above the law.

"Burden"

As for the “burden” on public authorities, the Act does not require them to answer repeated or vexatious requests. What is more, the many hundreds of millions of government waste that the Act has exposed over the years will be many, many times the cost of administering it.

Charging for FOI and appeals 

Introducing charges to make FOI requests would have a chilling effect on the Act and deter many people and organisations from making requests. The overall effect of this, and curbing the appeals process, would result in a reduction in the transparency of local and central Government, reducing the ability of the public to scrutinise decision-making.    

That is why the NMA is campaigning against these latest attempts to restrict your right to know. It was one of 140 media organisations and campaign groups to sign a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron and is submitting evidence to the Commission highlighting the dangers of restricting the Act and the very best uses of FOI by the national, regional and local press.  

See also Campaign for Freedom of Information

Everyone likes accountability until they are the ones who are accountable, or so it seems. Make no mistake, FOI faces its greatest threat yet. This is little more than an attempt to seal off the state from the scrutiny it is obligated to be subject to. How the commission handles the public responses will reveal just how open-minded they really are. My gut feeling is not to expect too much. Only volume of opposition can help stop this.

David Higgerson, digital publishing director, Trinity Mirror

This would be a cynical and, indeed, dangerous backward step in the long fight for greater openness and transparency. If MPs really want to serve their constituents, they will support this campaign to maintain the tremendous work of the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

Nick Turner, president, Society of Editors

You would very quickly find that the Act was priced out of the range of the great majority of individuals, smaller campaign organisations, freelance journalists and many other bodies. You would have a major restriction on how the Act could be used. You would find a very large fall off in the volume of requests made. It will make it easier for authorities to withhold information and makes it less likely they will be caught out when doing something different from what they say publicly.

Maurice Frankel, Campaign for Freedom of Information, on introducing charges for FOI

Britain is a secretive country, with information increasingly hidden from the public… The Freedom of Information Act enables the public and Press to ask questions because “openness is fundamental to the public health of a state”. So the idea of charging £20 for FOI requests is an outrage. Newspapers can afford it. The public less so. But why should anyone pay? The clue is in the Act's name. This information should be freely available.

The Sun

To say that this bunch [the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information] is more likely to take an insider’s view – to think first of the perspective of the bureaucracy being asked awkward questions, and only second of the citizen trying to root out inconvenient truths – is to put it mildly. Sir Humphrey would be thrilled by the panel’s “soundness.”

The Guardian

It is deeply worrying that the Commission is proposing charging the public for information that they have a right to. Freedom of Information is a crucial tool for keeping our politicians honest and our government on the right track. It should be available to everyone without cost – these proposals would reduce it to being a toy for the wealthy and powerful.

Donald Campbell, head of communications, Reprieve

Lest it be forgotten, it was FoI requests that led to the revelation of the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2008; MP Cyril Smith’s attempted cover-up of his sexual abuse of children; and, most recently, the UK’s participation in Syrian air strikes without parliamentary approval. Simply put, too much of the governmental dissatisfaction with FoI stems from the desire to avoid uncomfortable questions.

Independent

FoI is a vital tool for journalists but it is also far too weak as it stands. The FoI commission seems intent on seriously weakening the act dealing a blow to the public's right to know. This is not about saving money, or reducing the 'burden' on local authorities as has been suggested. It is about turning the clock back and putting us back in the dark. That's why Press Gazette will be fighting against what appears to be a government plot to water down FoI.

Dominic Ponsford, editor, Press Gazette

FoI serves an extremely important role in holding our politicians accountable and keeping wasteful spending in check. If authorities are truly concerned about keeping FOI-related cost down then they can simply make public spending more transparent so that a lot of the information is freely available without having to file FoI requests.

Dia Chakravarty, political director, TaxPayers' Alliance

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.

Jeremy Clifford, editorial board chairman, Johnston Press

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.

140 charities, NGOs, media organisations and others in a letter to the Government

The inquiry has all the hallmarks of an investigation set up to produce "the right answer" and hobble legislation that has been important over the past decade in exposing some of the lamentable inner workings of government and local authorities to great public scrutiny but is highly inconvenient to the Sir Humphries of the world.

Ray Snoddy, media commentator