Time to Free Information

TIME IS running out for the public to oppose the government's plans to restrict the Freedom of Information Act. Anyone who has an interest in getting empirical evidence from public bodies, rather than the usual propaganda and polemic, should send their comments to the Department for Constitutional Affairs by 8 March. The government's proposed regulations would dramatically curtail the ability of journalists and members of the public to get official information, particularly that which is in the public interest.

Two main changes are proposed. The first restricts the number of applications you can make - and if you regularly work for a paper you could be lumped in with all FOI requests from that organisation. For example, all contributors to the Guardian (staff or freelance) could be restricted to just a handful of FOI requests about the NHS per year. No longer could the paper get the survival rates of surgeons or of MRSA in hospitals across the UK, or the financial details that revealed 13 NHS trusts are bankrupt.

Secondly, public officials will have new powers to include in the costing of FOI requests not just time spent finding and collating material, but also reading, consulting, and "thinking". If the cost of staff "thinking" and consulting goes above £600 for a central government request or £450 for all other public bodies, then it will automatically be rejected. This will effectively block all but the most simple and superficial requests.

The government had initially tried to force through the proposals as secondary legislation without any debate or public consultation. The current consultation is a valued concession but while freedom of information may be our right, keeping it is our responsibility.

The full consultation papers are available at www.dca.gov.uk/consult/dpr2007/cp2806.htm and submissions can be sent to: Department for Constitutional Affairs, Information Rights Division, 6th floor, Selborne House, 54-60 Victoria Street, London SW1E 6QW or emailed to informationrights@dca.gsi.gov.uk

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