25 October 2007

This one's won - see here

21 May 2007

On Friday 18 May the House of Commons passed the Maclean Bill exempting parliament from the Freedom of Information Act.

The Bill now goes to the House of Lords - who will, we hope, once more provide a defence of democratic values against our elected representatives...

25 October 2007

The Maclean Bill appears certain to have died, with no member of the House of Lords sponsoring it for a debate there before the end of the Parliamentary term.

Defend Freedom of Information

IT'S TIME to act, once more, in defence of Freedom of Information. Two years after the UK's already-diluted Act came into force, the government wants to hobble it. It's holding a second "consultation" on this - and we are asking you to make your voice heard.

Please visit www.dca.gov.uk/consult/dpr2007/cp2806.htm, follow the links to the "Supplementary Paper" and "Supplementary Paper Questionnaire" and answer the two questions in the latter. There's space to give your general views as well. The deadline is 21 June.

What's up?

Freedom of InformationThe government wants to restrict the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which came fully into force in January 2005. To do this, it chose the most obscure and quietest Parliamentary procedure available: the bit of the Act allowing the Minister to declare what requests for information are "too expensive" to be granted.

The proposals are, to quote the government's summary, to:

  • include reading time, consideration time and consultation time in the calculation of the appropriate limit above which requests could be refused on cost grounds; and
  • aggregate requests made by any person or persons apparently acting in concert, to each public authority for the purposes of calculating the appropriate limit

Being translated, that means that officials of public authories could cost time spent staring out of the window while thinking about whether to refuse a request, at £25 an hour. Or, as NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear has pointed out, they could spend some time thinking about calling a meeting about refusing a request, add up the time and travel expenses for all those attending - and then not hold the meeting, because they have already refused the request on the grounds that the meeting would have cost more than £600 (£450 for public authorities other than central government) if they had held it.

And the second part could mean that if a freelance puts in a request to, say, the Ministry of Defence, then the cost of granting that counts toward the £600 per 60 days limit on requests by a newspaper she's done work for - even if her request wasn't going to inform a story for that paper. Could the MoD count her request against the limit for every paper she's ever done work for? Will editors have to ban freelances from making requests, just in case?

Freelances may wish to stress this point. Is it a restraint of trade on us? Is it, therefore, legal?

And the justification for all this? It could save £11.8 million a year.

The group Public Concern At Work (www.pcaw.co.uk) calculates that the cost of implementing the proposed changes would be about £12 million.

The story so far

An "independent review" of the functioning of the Act was published by the Department for Constitutional Affairs on 16 October 2006. Incidentally, Freedom of Information requests to find out what this review cost - on the grounds that the DCA doesn't know.

The government held a first consultation, which closed on 8 March having gathered nearly 200 responses.

A petition organised by the Press Gazette gathered 1250 signatures, including many newspaper editors.

The first consultation didn't actually ask whether the Freedom of Information regulations should be changed at all, though. Hence the supplementary consultation, which closes on 21 June 2007.

It now seems that the government will give itself three months to think about the supplementary responses.

If the government decided to press on, it would "lay before Parliament" a Statutory Instrument making the changes, in September. MPs would have a short period to "pray against" the proposal, sending it back to (we think) a Parliamentary Committee. See here for what details we've been able to decipher.

But, as Maurice Frankel, campaigner at the Campaign for Freedom of Information (www.cfoi.org.uk) points out, the practical point is to convince the government that it really, really doesn't want to pursue the proposal to that point.

Meanwhile...

David Maclean, Conservative MP for Penrith, introduced a Private Members' Bill to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act. Norman Baker MP (LibDem, Lewes) has pointed out that the government whips' remaining silent on this constitutes tacit approval.

On Friday 20 April it received, er, very thorough consideration in the Commons - and ran out of time. But then it magically revived. (It went to the back of the Private Members' Bill queue, which happened to be empty.) Maclean then postponed the second debate - at the time of writing this was due to take place on 18 May (it passed the Commons).

All suggestions for interesting and lengthy points that could be made on that date will be received gratefully and passed to MPs; the Bill's home page is at www.publications.parliament.uk /pa/pabills/200607/freedom_of_information_amendment.htm

  • London Freelance Branch held a very successful meeting on opposing the changes at the House of Commons on 16 April and this contains useful arguments that members may want to consider in responding to the consultation: see links below.

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