MPs from the UK’s three
main parties today publish a report calling on the government to abandon its
planned restrictions on “freedom of information”.
The cross-party constitutional affairs committee concludes in the report: “The proposed regime could result in public authorities avoiding answers to embarrassing, contentious or high-profile cases.”
“The proposed measures have the scope signific-antly to reduce the flow of information into the public domain. We recommend that the proposed new charging regime be withdrawn.”
The report also condemned the bill that would give parliament an exemption from FOIA, which was passed by the house of commons but has stalled in the lords. It says: “We believe an exemption would be contrary to the culture of openness which we have argued should prevail in the public service.”
The committee’s chairman, Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrat MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, said: “The freedom of information act works. It enhances the rights of the public.
“Neither the government nor MPs should be seek-ing to limit its effectiveness, and there is no evidence here to support either the government’s proposals on fees or the bill. I am hopeful that both will now be dropped.”
Ministers had proposed curbs on “freedom of in-formation” 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 ministry of justice, formerly the department for constitutional affairs (DCA), which oversees FOIA in the UK, intended to introduce the restrictions by now. However, it delayed them, probably at least until September, after deciding to carry out a second round of consultation.
The delay came after the FOIA Centre and others described a first round of consultation as “highly restrictive” and based on the false assumption that the allegedly excessive cost of FOIA to public bodies needed to be curbed.
Lord Falconer, the minister who heads the min-istry of justice, may yet heed calls from the FOIA Centre, the national union of journalists, newspapers – and now the parliamentary constitutional affairs committee – to abandon the proposals. But he has only so far agreed to delay the plan to enable his department to consider comments on wider issues than those covered in the original consultation exercise.
The select committee last year published a review of how “freedom of information” was working, identifying delays in responding to requests and to complaints to the office of the information commissioner (ICO), the UK’s FOIA regulator, as the primary problem.
In its report today, the committee says: “In our previous inquiry, we saw considerable evidence of unnecessary delays in responding to requests for information on the part of some public authorities. The government has taken no account of the likelihood that some time spent by public officials dealing with FOIA requests is unnecessary.
“Instead, it is proposing a regime which would reward slow and inefficient authorities by providing a mechanism for refusing requests which an authority chose not to process promptly.
“The cost-benefit analysis used to support the proposed new regime is insufficient. The costs to the public of reduced access to information are ignored, the additional costs of the proposed new regime are omitted, and alternative ways of making information provision more efficient are not considered.
“The poor quality of information presented in the cost-benefit analysis, in particular the lack of information about the benefits of FOIA to the public, suggests that little effort was made by the DCA to balance public-access rights against the needs of public authorities to deliver services effectively.”
“The objection that the most serious questions are the most time-consuming is especially serious. Whether a public authority was deliberately being slow with its response or not, the nature of careful, wide consultation on matters of great importance will tend to put requests for information that is potentially embarrassing for the public authority in the frame for being ruled out for response on the grounds of cost.”
It adds: “There is no objective evidence that any change is necessary. The cost-benefit analysis provided with the government’s consultation papers is incomplete. There is clear evidence that the proposed amendments could be open to manipulation and abuse.”
And it recommends that the government should instead concentrate on improving FOIA. “The ministry of justice should now focus on improving compliance with the existing provisions of FOIA and on reducing the delays encountered by requesters seeking information.”
“Last year, we heard that many requesters were experiencing lengthy delays before receiving responses from public authorities.
“We heard that the ability of requesters to chall-enge such delays was curtailed by the fact that they often had to wait months for the information commissioner to start investigating their complaints.
“We are not convinced that the funding of the ICO is sufficient to enable it to deliver an effective complaints resolution service. We question whether it is appropriate for the ministry of justice to set the funding levels for the independent regulator and thereby directly influence its capacity to investigate complaints.”
The information commissioner reported to the committee that, as of last February, there was a backlog of 600 “complex cases”.
The conclusions of this committee of MPs are entirely in line with the submissions that we have made to the government over its planned restrictions on “freedom of information”.
Not for the first time, the committee has shown that it well understands the reality of “freedom of information” in practice in the UK. This report will make a small step towards restoring the huge loss in public confidence that followed the attempt by the house of commons to exempt parliament from FOIA.
The government has so far accepted implicitly that its first consultation exercise on its proposals were inadequate.
We repeat that we hope that it also comes to accept that the proposals should – as we and many others, including this cross-party committee, have said – be abandoned.
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