Journalists and campaigners hit back at plan for freedom of information commission

David Cameron is being urged not to weaken the FOI Act.
David Cameron is being urged not to weaken the FOI Act.

More than 140 media bodies, campaign groups and others have written to Prime Minister David Cameron expressing ‘serious concern’ at the government’s approach to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

Among them is the editorial board of Johnston Press, publishers of the Morpeth Herald.

They are worried a new commission might turn back the clock on the public’s right to know how government operates and how public money is spent.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (and a Scottish Act from 2002) gave the public and journalists the right to ask questions about local authorities, the NHS, government departments, the police and many others – and they have to answer.

But the act has not been without its critics and on July 17 the Government announced a Commission on Freedom of Information.

Publishers like Johnston Press are concerned the commission is made up of politicians who are critical of the act and people who are subject to it, who are likely to restrict its remit.

There are also fears at government plans to introduce fees for tribunal appeals when someone disagrees with a ruling by the Information Commissioner. These are currently free of charge.

The letter from publishers and campaign groups has been co-ordinated by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, a lobbying group which campaigned for several decades to have the act passed as law.

It says the commission’s ‘purpose is to consider new restrictions to the Act’.

It points out that the commission’s five members include two former home secretaries, a former permanent secretary and the chair of a body subject to the FOI Act.

A government perspective on the Act’s operation ‘will be well represented on the commission itself’, the letter also says.

Former Home Secretary Jack Straw, who has said the FOI Act ‘provides too great a level of disclosure’, is one of the commission members.

When in government, Mr Straw called for information about government policy formulation to be automatically withheld, regardless of any public interest in its disclosure.

Mr Straw called for charges to be introduced for FOI requests and said it should be significantly easier to refuse requests on cost grounds.

Dame Patricia Hodgson, chair of the communications regulator Ofcom, is another commission member.

In 2012, Ofcom said ‘there is no doubt’ the FOI Act had a ‘chilling effect’, discouraging the proper recording of information by public authorities.

Ofcom has called for it to be made easier for authorities to refuse requests on cost grounds.

The letter includes the following: ‘An independent Commission is expected to reach its views based on the evidence presented to it rather than the pre-existing views of its members.

‘Indeed, in appointing members to such a body we would expect the government to expressly avoid those who appear to have already reached and expressed firm views. It has done the opposite.

‘The government does not appear to intend the commission to carry out an independent and open minded inquiry. Such a review cannot provide a proper basis for significant changes to the FOI Act.’

Jeremy Clifford, chairman of the Johnston Press editorial board, said: “Johnston Press editors and journalists have used the FOI Act consistently over the past decade to inform readers on many, many issues that directly affect them.

“We are deeply concerned at any plans to restrict the Act and urge David Cameron to consider the membership of this commission and its remit.”

The letter also expresses concern at government proposals to introduce fees for tribunal appeals against the Information Commissioner’s FOI decisions, currently free.

Government proposals would require requesters to pay £100 for an appeal based on written submissions and £600 for one involving an oral hearing.

The letter says the introduction of fees for employment tribunal appeals has led to a drastic decrease in the number of cases brought and a similar effect on the number of FOI appeals would be likely.

The organisations say: ‘We regard the FOI Act as a vital mechanism of accountability, which has transformed the public’s rights to information and substantially improved the scrutiny of public authorities.

‘We would deplore any attempt to weaken it.’