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.
The 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
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.
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.