Government thinks we know too much, says freedom campaigner
Government proposals to change the Freedom of Information Act - severely cutting back the public's 'right to know' - has drawn fierce citicism from a number of quarters including the media and the Campaign for Freedom of Information.
In addition, an all-party coalition of MPs has tabled a motion urging the government to drop its plans for restrictions, which would allow authorities to refuse information on cost grounds. Such changes would 'undermine the Act's contribution to increased discussion of public affairs, accountability and trust in the work of public authorities', says the coalition. The Courier and Weekly News invited Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, to put forward his organisation's views on the government's intentions to restrict the FOI Act.
"The government thinks we know too much about it. Only two years after bringing the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act fully into force ministers have decided to severely cut back the right to know, writes Maurice Frankel.
The government says it is merely targeting the more expensive requests, to keep costs down. But the Act itself costs only £35 million a year. The cuts are supposed to save just under £12 million annually, a tiny sum in government terms. After all, the National Audit Office says the government could save £660 million by more careful purchasing of office supplies. And we've just learnt that the London Olympics may cost several billions more than we were promised only months ago.
What the government really wants is a bit more privacy from our prying eyes. FOI is beginning to put ministers under pressure. We are learning more about the costs of contentious policies like identity cards. We now know that the government considered weakening money laundering controls to encourage US style super casinos in the UK.
Unwelcome information about ministers' meetings with commercial lobbyists has been disclosed. FOI has revealed that the apparent success of some academy schools, favoured by the government, is due not to better teaching but to the selection of pupils from better off backgrounds.
At local level, the Act has been even more effective. Spending on contracts, consultancies and expenses has come under new scrutiny. FOI requests have revealed the success rates of individual heart surgeons, the failures of some restaurants to meet hygiene standards, the millions spent by councils employing temporary agency staff instead of full time employees, the number of taxi drivers with drink-driving or assault convictions, the amounts hospitals make from parking charges and the care centres whose policy was to leave patients in their rooms during a fire, in the mistaken belief that they were fire resistant.
Now the government wants to make it much easier for authorities to reject FOI requests. At the moment, they can refuse to answer if the cost of finding the information would be more than £450 or, in the case of government departments, £600. Ministers want them to also count the cost of the time spent discussing and deciding what to do about the request. The longer officials spend scratching their head over an issue, the greater the chance of a refusal. Requests about complex, contentious or just unfamiliar issues would be most at risk. The public interest in disclosure could be ignored.
The hours needed to deal with an unwelcome request could be boosted by deliberately consulting lawyers or other specialists or ensuring that meetings involved not only the officials handling the issue but their line managers and departmental heads too. Meetings wouldn't actually have to take place: an estimate of their likely hours would do.
Ministers also want to allow authorities to add up the cost of all the requests made by the same individual or organisation to an authority during any three months, and refuse them if the total is more than the £450 or £600 limit. The authority would have to show that it was "reasonable" to aggregate costs in this way. But once they did so, a newspaper, campaign group, MP or other regular requester might be limited to one or two requests a quarter. The casualties could include those requests which do most to inform public debate, extend the boundaries of openness and help hold authorities to account.
Freedom of information has been a Labour party commitment for 30 years. Having brought the legislation into force just two years ago the government ought to be taking pride in the Act's success - not trying to stifle it.
The government is now consulting about these proposals. You can help by letting your MP know that you want more, not less, freedom of information."
[Maurice Frankel has worked with the Campaign for Freedom of Information since it was set up in 1984, and has been its director since 1987.
He previously worked on access to environmental and safety information issues for the corporate accountability group Social Audit.
He was a member of the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Group on Implementation of the Freedom of Information Act and of the Commonwealth Group of Experts whose Freedom of Information Principles were adopted by Commonwealth Law Ministers in 1999.
He is also deputy chair of the whistleblower charity Public Concern at Work.]
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