Is Freedom of Information losing ground after all?
THE REPORT rejecting the idea of narrowing the Freedom of Information Act that mandates release of public bodies' documents in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is welcome. The Freelance is especially pleased by its rejection of the proposal to levy deterrent charges. We thank those who wrote supporting the submissions of the National Union of Journalists and Campaign for Freedom of Information submissions to the review (Freelance December 2015).
But Private Eye, ever the enemy of warm fuzzy feelings, points out that the report does recommend abolishing the relatively inexpensive first port of call for appeals against refusals by the Information Commissioner to order release of documents (#1414, 18 March, p 38). It would appear that if this recommendation made it into law, such appeals - not at all uncommon when journalists request information - would have to go straight to the Upper Tribunal of the Administrative Appeals Chamber - which we would expect to be more expensive.
The Eye suggests that such appeals may get more common in the near future. Before 2009 the Information Commissioner overturned more than half of government refusals of requests on the grounds that they could "prejudice the conduct of public affairs" - for example by revealing splits in government bodies. Since Christopher Graham was appointed Information Commissioner in that year the proportion has fallen to 17 per cent - one in six.
The report also recommends a change in the law to make it absolutely clear that the executive (government) "should have a final veto over the release of information". This is in response to the Guardian battling through the tribunals and up to the Supreme Court to get to see the "spidergrams" of Charles Windsor.
Again: these are mere recommendations. What they demand is vigilance when any proposal to change the law goes to Parliament.