Cross Party Backlash Grows Over FOI

Politicians from across the political spectrum have come out against proposed changes to the Freedom of Information Act which would see the transparency of public bodies reduced. 

The independent regulator of FOI has also expressed scepticism this week about a number of the proposals, which include charging for FOI requests and taking information related to policy-making and risk registers out of FOI.

MPs and Lords from the Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, UKIP and the Green Party have come out against the Independent Commission for Freedom of Information’s proposed measures to water down the Act which have met with strong opposition from the News Media Association and the news media industry, as well as transparency and civil liberties campaigners.

Speaking at the Labour party’s alternative FOI review this week, Lib Dem peer Lord McNally described the  commission as a “rigged jury” while Lib Dem MP Tom Brake tabled a Bill to strengthen the Act through a series measures including scrapping the Ministerial veto.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Brake also backed the NMA’s proposal to introduce a time limits on internal FOI reviews by public bodies – one of several measures for strengthening the Act proposed by the NMA – as well as extending the Act to cover private sector companies carrying out work for the public sector, charities and the Royal Households.  

Mr Brake said: “The News Media Association is pressing for such limits, and I am backing its efforts. A total of 40 days for all stages seems reasonable. Currently, the absence of time limits provides Departments with a convenient delaying mechanism, and they are already adept enough at kicking into the long grass.”

The call for a statutory time limit on reviews was echoed by the Information Commissioner, Sir Christopher Graham, when he gave oral evidence this week to the Independent Commission: “I would have thought that eight weeks to give a definitive answer at public authority level would be adequate so you’ve got 20 working days for the initial decision. I would then say that it would be reasonable to say a further 20 days for an internal review and that would give the authority eight weeks to get it right.”

He also poured cold water on the idea of introducing fees for requests, saying: “any fee that you contemplated would be unlikely to meet the costs of actually dealing with Freedom of Information requests.” Instead he urged authorities to make better use of the existing powers they had to hold down costs.

He then warned the Commission that removing information such as risk registers out of FOI would be “infantilising the electorate” and treating them as though “they weren’t allowed to realise there were big and difficult choices that had to be made and different risks that had to be managed.”

Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn has spoken out in favour of a strong FOI Act at the Newspaper Conference annual lunch and deputy leader Tom Watson has been campaigning extensively for the Act to be strengthened. 

Mr Corbyn said: “We have a Freedom of Information Act which is very, very important because freedom of information is essential in any democracy if you are to hold to account those that exercise authority, power or administration.”

Conservative Jesse Norman, chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, told the Mirror this week that he was against any plans to water down the Act. He said: “I think Government should be held to account and I don’t think any power that is unaccountable is legitimate.

“So I’m very tough on it. I’m a strong supporter of Freedom of Information. I’d be quite surprised if anything much happened there. The Government has only got a majority of 12, and there are plenty of Conservatives who feel pretty strongly about the importance of it.”

Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP, tabled a House of Commons motion calling on the Government to abandon plans to weaken the Act and saying she “applauds the way in which the FOI Act has been used by newspapers and local and national journalists to shine a light on the workings of government and public authorities.”

UKIP’s Douglas Carswell wrote in the Mail on Sunday: “Over the past decade, digital technology has made it far cheaper and easier to disclose information. Claiming that the costs and bother of answering FoI requests are reasons not to is nonsense.

“Instead of rowing back from greater disclosure, a truly modernising administration should be looking to build on the Act by making disclosure the norm. Data should be made available without members of the public having to ask for it.”