CFOI Director Outlines Threats To FOI During Journalism Matters Week
The Freedom of Infornation Act is an essential tool for journalists and the public but it is under attack on multiple fronts, damaging the public right to know, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information Maurice Frankel has said in an op ed for Journalism Matters.
He said: “Do you want to know what the government is doing – or failing to do? The Freedom of Information Act could give you the answer. Even if you don’t use it yourself, you will probably have seen what journalists have uncovered using it.
“FOI disclosures have thrown light on the lack of preparation for the pandemic, the Covid contracts that went to Ministers’ contacts, the dangers of smart motorways, the release of untreated sewage into our waterways and police figures showing that half of all unlawful sexual contacts with children involve apps owned by Facebook.
“FOI has illuminated countless local issues from potholes and parking to procurement, planning and public services. Some are likely to be highlighted this week during the News Media Association’s Journalism Matters campaign.
“The FOI Act has repeatedly come under attack from government which finds the openness uncomfortable. Multiple attempts to sabotage it have been fought off, including moves to charge people for making requests, exempt MPs’ expenses and block access to Whitehall policy discussions. This would have prevented us seeing if government addressed the problems of a proposed policy or just decided to ignore them.
“The threats to FOI continue. A Bill now going through Parliament will create a body to fund high risk research but will exempt it from FOI altogether, supposedly to spare it the ‘bureaucracy’ of answering requests. The Advanced Research and Invention Agency will spend £800 million of public money over 4 years but the public will have better rights to information from parish councils which, like most public bodies, are subject to FOI. The American body on which the UK agency is modelled is covered by the US FOI Act and receives an average of just one FOI request a week, hardly a debilitating burden.
“Another current bill will establish the Heath Service Safety Investigations Body to investigate incidents which endanger patients. It will report on its findings but any information it chooses not to publish will be blocked from disclosure under FOI. Incredibly, a whistleblower who reveals that the new body has, say, failed to contact key witnesses to a medical accident will commit a criminal offence.
“The government is proposing to tighten up the Official Secrets Act to make it easier to convict whistleblowers and journalists who publish what they reveal. Currently the maximum penalty on conviction is two years imprisonment. Astonishingly, the Home Office says the maximum for leaking should be the same as for espionage – 14 years in prison.
“The Law Commission has recommended that anyone charged under that Act should be able to argue that disclosure was in the public interest. The government looks set to reject this. Threatening people who reveal government misconduct with oppressive penalties will ensure that improper behaviour continues.
“The Freedom of Information Act is a more straightforward way of obtaining information. It’s far from perfect. There can be long delays in obtaining information. But it is one of the essential tools that helps keep the public informed and official bodies honest. Keep it mind – you may need to use it yourself!”
- The Campaign For Freedom of Information has played a key part in getting the Freedom of Information Act passed in 2000 and has helped thousands of people exercise their rights under it. For more information and to support the Campaign (which urgently needs it) go to www.crowdfunder.co.uk/fight-secrecy