Ministers today abandoned
their planned restrict-ions on “freedom of information”. The move
is a victory for many organisations that argued against the proposed curbs,
notably the FOIA Centre, the national union of journalists and several news
It comes after the bill that would have given parliament an exemption from FOIA stalled after failing to win any backing from the house of lords.
Ministers had proposed changes to the govern-ment’s charging regime to make it easier for public bodies to refuse a FOIA request by claiming that it is too expensive, 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.
MPs on the cross-party constitutional affairs committee had called on the government to abandon the curbs, saying in a report last June that the changes “could result in public authorities avoiding answers to embarrassing, contentious or high-profile cases.”
The committee’s chairman, Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrat MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, said today: “We greatly welcome the fact that the government has seen sense and accepted our position – and that of the many people and organisations who have made good use of freer access to information – and not changed the charging regime as planned.
“To go ahead with the proposed changes would have been a great mistake.”
The ministry of justice announced the change of direction in a formal response to the committee’s report.
However, the government has failed to adopt the committee’s recommendation to make the FOIA regulator, the information commissioner, independ-ently funded. The regulator has continuously been dogged by a backlog of complaints about how public bodies have responded to FOIA requests.
Beith said: “We are disappointed that [the gov-ernment has] largely ignored our point about independently funding the office of the information commissioner. Can it be 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 commissioner would be in a far stronger position if he became an officer of parliament, like the ombudsman. I am sure that parliament will want to return to the issue of independence.”
We, of course, welcome the government’s announcement to abandon its planned restrictions on “freedom of information”.
This, on top of the falling of the bill that would have exempted parliament from FOIA, is good news for those in favour of freedom of information. But this is not the end of the matter. The biggest obstacle to “freedom of information” in the UK is, ironically, the office of the information commissioner, the very body that is supposed to regulate it.
The constitutional affairs committee of MPs, having set out the devastating impact on freedom of information that would have resulted from the proposed changes to the FOIA charging regime, also correctly identified the information commissioner as a serious problem.
The government has shown no sign of wanting to tackle this problem, which it seems to view as a useful, deniable device to restrict freedom of information.
on this article
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Ministers delay planned restrictions on FOIA
FOIA regulator’s bid for funding boost refused
Heather Brooke: politicians must embrace FOIA
Tim Gopsill: curbing FOIA is bad for democracy
Why ministers’ attempt to foil FOIA needs to fail
Government set to break promise to MPs on FOIA
Ministers consider changing FOIA charges regime
MPs: FOIA regulator must become more ‘assertive’
Ministers deny plans to increase FOIA charges