Industry Warns PM Over Freedom of Information

The News Media Association was one of over 140 media organisations and campaign groups to sign a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron expressing “serious concern” about the Government’s plans to review the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

The signatories also include Trinity Mirror, Telegraph Media Group, Newsquest, Guardian News and Media, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Archant, Johnston Press among many other national, regional and local newspaper publishers.

The letter, co-ordinated by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, takes aim at the terms of the reference of the review, which focus entirely on considering new restrictions to the Act.

The five-member Commission appointed to carry out the review has been asked to assess whether the Act provides sufficient protection for sensitive information and allows for a “safe space” for the development of policy. The Commission will also look at the “burdens” the Act imposes on public bodies dealing with FOI requests.

“There is no indication that it is expected to consider how the right of access might need to be improved,” the letter states.

The letter also criticises the composition of the Commission, which includes 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.

One of the Commissioners is former Home Secretary Jack Straw, who is a vocal critic of the Act, and another, Dame Patricia Hodgson, was chair of Ofcom when it said that that the Act has had a “chilling effect” on the proper recording of information by public bodies.

The letter warns that their inclusion compromises the objectivity of the Commission: “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.”

The Commission has yet to make any announcement at all as to how it will conduct its review of the Act. The NMA, which is campaigning against efforts to water down the Act, will be making a submission in defence of the FOIA and will encourage its members to make representations as well.  The NMA has already responded to the MoJ consultation on court fees and made submissions to the House of Commons Justice Committee, echoing the concerns set out in the letter.