Save the Freedom of Information Act

    By Sid Ryan, CIJ Bertha Fellow and FOIA trainer.
     
    The government is planning to cripple the Freedom of Information Act, because it is being 'misused' by journalists as a research tool. In order to prevent journalists from causing trouble proposed reforms will fundamentally undermine your right to know about decisions taken on your behalf, affecting the public services you rely on and using your money
     
    The 'Independent Commission on Freedom of Information' has been set up to decide on whether the Act is proving to be too expensive for government departments and whether ministers policy discussions are being adequately protected. 
     
    This Commission comes only three years after the post-legislative scrutiny of the Act, which concluded: "The Freedom of Information Act has been a significant enhancement of our democracy. Overall our witnesses agreed the Act was working well." and "We do not believe that there has been any general harmful effect at all on the ability to conduct business in the public service, and in our view the additional burdens are outweighed by the benefits."
     
    The most dangerous revision would be to prevent FOI being used to find out about the policy development process. Ministers worry that they are not able to have a 'safe space' to discuss wild ideas and not be criticised for them. Remember, this is already protected under the current Act. If information qualifies as 'policy development' a public interest test is carried out and if the material needs to be withheld, it will be. Under the new system, if information relates to policy development you will have to wait a few decades until the National Archives release it. You will never know why certain policy options were carried out over others. 
     
    The other problem is that the government propose adding 'thinking time' to the cost of processing a request. Currently, you have a 'time budget' of 18/24 hours for the authority to do exactly four things: determine if the information is held, find it, retrieve it and extract it. If your request will take longer than this, it will be denied. But adding 'thinking time' to the list gives an excuse to deny almost anything, all you need to do is book a meeting room invite as many people as you can and suddenly the majority of the time budget is spent 'thinking about it' before anyone even goes looking for the information. 
     
    Charging for sending FOI requests has also been considered, with the Telegraph reporting £20 as a likely charge. Thinking about this in isolation, it's not terrible. For the investigative value of a good FOI, £20 is a bargain. But what if you want to know: How much has the council's health and social care budget been cut? And you want a complete sample for all the local authorities, that will cost over £6,000. And the casualty of charging for FOIs isn't going to be the professional journalists, it's going to be vexed residents and local campaigners.
     
    Those three changes alone will effectively destroy the Freedom of Information Act. In its place will be 'open data' which is all of the stuff that Government wants to release and not much of anything that matters. Ministers will be free to choose any reason they like for promoting a policy, safe in the knowledge that the real reasons will only be released 30 years later. 
     
    The Commission is seeking public evidence until the 19 November, any submissions will be considered by the panel and incorporated into their report. You can access the consultation
     
    The Campaign for Freedom of Information has the best resources for finding out what you can do to help protect the Act. 
     
    Tony Blair once commented on introducing FOI: "For political leaders, it's like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, 'Hey, try this instead', and handing them a mallet." The government wants to return to a time of being hit with sticks, don't make it easy.