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Plans to introduce tight curbs on the use of the UK’s “freedom of information” law were today postponed.
Ministers had planned to bring in the restrictions on the freedom of information act (FOIA) next month. However, the department for constitutional affairs, which oversees FOIA in the UK, announced a further period of consultation on its proposals.
The government was proposing to make it easier for public bodies to refuse a FOIA request by claiming that it is too onerous, and to allow them to “aggregate” requests from any one party so that the maximum limit applies to the estimated cost of complying with all requests that it makes to a single authority within a 60-working-day period.
The department, which is based at Millbank, carried out a three-month consultation exercise on its proposed amendments to the FOIA fees regulations, which closed earlier this month. The consultation was confined to narrow questions about the proposals.
Today, the department announced that it was issuing a supplementary consultation paper seeking further comments by June 21 on the principle behind the planned changes and seeking suggestions on other way of curbing “disproportionately burdensome” FOIA requests.
Alan Beith, Liberal Democrat MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, chairman of the parliamentary constit-utional affairs committee, which is examining the plans, said: “There is very serious concern about the impact of these proposals on the working of the freedom of information act.”
“I welcome the fact that there is further consider-ation of the principle of making these changes. The committee will report on the proposals before the end of the consultation period.”
The delay in introducing the changes to the FOIA fees regulations has already sparked speculation that the department may – in line with calls by the FOIA Centre, the National Union of Journalists and newspapers – abandon the proposals.
However, the department has only indicated that it is prepared to consider comments on wider issues than those covered in its original consultation exercise, and that it will take longer to reach a decision on the proposals.
It says that it may take until September to publish a summary of responses, meaning that the decision could be delayed at least until then.
In its supplementary paper, the department says: “There have been over 200 responses to the consultation exercise… with a wide range of comments received. The responses to the consultation exercise will be published along with any responses to this paper in due course. Some of the responses received have commented on the principle of making these changes, and other responses have stated they would have welcomed an opportunity to comment on the principle of the changes, or have suggested that there may be better ways of tackling those cases that create a disproportionate burden on public authorities.
“The government wishes to make clear that it is keen to hear all those views, and it has therefore decided to issue this supplementary paper extending the original consultation.”
It invites responses on specific points and “any other general comments on the principle of making changes to the existing regulations or ways of tackling the problems identified.”
The government’s announcement to consider wider issues than it originally planned is very welcome.
On March 5, in our assessment on the proposed FOIA changes, we said: “The department for constitutional affairs is carrying out a ‘consultation’ exercise on its proposals, with the deadline for submissions expiring on March 8. However, the consultation is a sham. It has invited responses to highly restrictive questions, and even fails to invite responses on all the changes proposed.
“Beyond the narrow scope of the consultation, the changes are proposed on a false assumption, namely the need to curb the allegedly excessive cost of FOIA to public bodies.”
We made the same point to the department in our submission to its original consultation exercise. We were not, it seems, alone in making this observation. The department has, rightly, accepted implicitly that the consultation exercise was inadequate and, consequently, is seeking comments on wider issues raised by the proposals.
We hope that it also comes to accept that the proposals should, as we and many others have said, be abandoned. Some commentators are already speculating that the department will scrap them. This is premature, wishful thinking. And no one should forget, as perhaps ministers are pleased that many seem to have done, that FOIA needs urgent reform to make it more effective for the public.
Some commentators have gone further and are already referring to the government “back-tracking” on the plans. This is an immature assessment. Should the government be persuaded that its proposals ought to be abandoned, either largely or in their entirety, this would be no time for name-calling about “ministers performing U-turns” and the like.
Our first criticism of the department over its proposed FOIA changes, one that was picked up by others, was its failure to consult properly. If it surprises us all by actually listening and heeding this and other criticisms of its plans, we should be as quick to welcome such a move as we were to condemn its truly anti-democratic proposed amendments.
This is a government of contradictions. On the one hand, it introduced into statute in the UK a long overdue freedom of information act. On the other, a little while later, it attempts to kill off a law that had been a force, albeit a limited one, for greater accountability.
The government’s first instincts for FOIA were right, a hang-over, no doubt, from Labour’s long years in opposition. Its later bent towards secrecy was wrong, a result, no doubt, of Labour’s decade in power.
Should the government overcome its flirtation with the apparently alluring idea of strangling FOIA, then, far from ridiculous talk of “back-tracking” and “U-turns”, we would welcome its consistency with its original intentions.
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