Alarm as MPs Recommend Weakening FOI Appeal Rights
Transparency campaigners and the News Media Association have expressed alarm at the recommendation by the House of Commons Justice Select Committee to drastically restrict the right to appeal decisions made by the Information Commissioner regarding the Freedom of Information Act.
In a report on the tribunal system published this week, the committee said the government should legislate to remove the right to appeal a decision by the Commissioner to the First Tier Tribunal.
A right of appeal to the Upper Tribunal would remain, but only on a point of law. The committee noted that this had been the view of the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information, which published the findings of its review of the Act in March this year.
Lucy Gill, NMA legal, policy and regulatory affairs advisor, said: “The right of appeal to the FTT is an important and valuable check on the Information Commissioner’s decision-making which should not be removed.
“A much better way to speed up the appeals process would be to introduce statutory time limits on the first stage of that process, where public authorities review their own decisions not to disclose by way of an ‘internal review’.”
The Commission said stripping the FTT of its role would tackle delays and duplication in the appeals process. However, the Campaign for Freedom of Information has said “the right to challenge the Information Commissioner’s decisions is important and losing it would be a major blow.”
It noted that in 2014, 21 per cent of appeals to the FTT on Freedom of Information met with some or total success. The Campaign added that recent successes cited by the Campaign include rulings that required the Cabinet Office to disclose how members of the Chilcot inquiry into the invasion of Iraq were appointed and the Department for Education to reveal payments to new sponsors taking over failing academy schools.
The Justice Committee made its recommendation to cutback on appeal rights despite the Government indicating back in March that it had no plans to change legislation to adopt the Commission’s recommendations.
The NMA welcomed that announcement by the Government and its own submission to the Commission, it defended the role of the FTT as an important check on the Information Commissioner’s decision-making.
The NMA suggested that a better way to speed up the appeals process would be to introduce statutory time limits on the first stage of that process, where public authorities review their own decisions not to disclose by way of an “internal review”.
Official statistics for 2015 show that central government departments took longer than 20 days to review refusal notices on 921 occasions, which represented 38 per cent of all internal reviews. Some 39 reviews took longer than 100 days.