Government Pulls Back From Extreme FOI Clampdown
The Government has said it will not be clamping down on the Freedom of Information Act by introducing extreme measures such as charging for requests, describing the Act as “one of the pillars on which open government operates.”
Responding to the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information’s report on FOI on Tuesday, Matthew Hancock, Minister for the Cabinet Office with responsibility for FOI, said the Government “will not make any legal changes” to the FOI Act.
The Commission avoided recommending some of the more extreme measures to clamp down on the Act such as charging for FOI requests which it was initially feared would be introduced as a result of this review. The Campaign for Freedom of Information published a detailed analysis of the report.
One of the Commission’s recommendations was for an extension of the Act to cover private contractors carrying out public services. The News Media Association has argued for years that this would strengthen the Act, given the growth in outsourcing.
The report also recommended that all public authorities be required to publish FOI compliance stats, the introduction of a statutory 20 day limit for public authorities to consider the public interest for disclosure under FOI, and the introduction of a similar limit for internal reviews of refusal decisions – a measure which the NMA has called for to strengthen FOI.
But the NMA remains concerned over several aspects of the report including proposals to strengthen the ministerial veto which the NMA believes should be scrapped completely. The report also proposed removing the right of appeal to the First Tier Tribunal which would mean the only way to appeal decisions against disclosure made by the Information Commissioner would be through judicial review.
NMA legal, policy and regulatory affairs director Santha Rasaiah said: “The NMA will continue to campaign for a robust, comprehensive and effective Freedom of Information Act. We would support its extension but resist any changes that could reduce the public right to know.”
CFOI director Maurice Frankel said: “The Commission has stepped back from the one sided agenda which the government initially appeared to set for it, of restricting access to internal policy discussions, introducing charges for requests and making it easier for authorities to refuse requests. Instead it has also looked at the case for improving the legislation.
“The government itself has clearly been scalded by the criticism it has received from the press and public and made it clear it’s not prepared to take its initial agenda forward. We now need to ensure that the Act is extended to contractors providing public services and bodies like the National Crime Agency which have been deliberately excluded.”