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18 March 2021

The Times Warns Of Growing Threat To FOI

There has been a growing effort to frustrate Freedom of Information requests in recent years with respondents increasingly turning down requests for a variety of “questionable” reasons, such as cost or commercial sensitivity, The Times said today.

In a piece in today’s paper, The Times consumer affairs correspondent Andrew Ellson said he recently had a request returned unanswered because he had signed it off without using his surname, despite it being clearly visible in the email address.

He said: “Light is said to be the best disinfectant. Yet if you try to shine a torch on the practices of either central or local government their first instinct these days is to try to turn the power off.

“It’s hard to believe that the publication of such information was ever in question but somehow the information commissioner had agreed with a council’s original decision that secrecy was required because of “commercial sensitivity”. The tribunal rejected that argument, saying that there was “significant public interest in transparency”.

“There has been a growing effort to frustrate freedom of information requests in recent years, with demands increasingly turned down for a variety of questionable reasons, usually the alleged cost or supposed 'commercial sensitivity.' Delay and disambiguation are also common tactics. An amazing number of requests are sent back for spurious clarifications.

“Some councils are not averse to ignoring requests entirely and others will fight for months, at great cost, to deny the release of information. In central Government, Ministers have even gone to the length of setting up a “vetting unit” to control the release of potentially embarrassing information.”

The News Media Association has joined editors and other bodies to call on MPs to “urgently” investigate the Government's handling of Freedom of Information requests, amid wider concerns about deteriorating press freedom in the UK, in a drive organised by openDemocracy.

Mr Ellson added: “Thankfully this week saw a rare victory in the battle to save freedom of information. A tribunal ruled that councils should not hide where they borrow money from and how they are investing it, a decision that should help to expose the risks being taken with public cash.”