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Ministers water down Freedom of Information Act

Robert Verkaik / London Independent | October 17 2006

Ministers have been accused of blocking the public's access to sensitive information by proposing new rules to restrict the release of government reports, memos and letters.

The reform package outlined by the Government yesterday represented a draconian intervention that was not in the public interest, MPs and freedom of speech campaigners warned.

But ministers say action is needed to reduce the annual £35m bill for handling 34,000 requests made under the Freedom of Information Act, which came into force in January 2004.

Under the current financial regime, public bodies do not make a charge for considering requests if the work involved does not exceed £600 of a civil servant's time.

Now ministers want to set new criteria for making that assessment by including "reading time, consideration time and consultation time". They are also in favour of limiting the number of requests made by individual pressure groups and media outlets who the Government claims disproportionately add to the costs of the legislation.

A report published by the Government yesterday, looking at the economic impact of the legislation, found that journalists make up 10 per cent of the volume of central government requests and 21 per cent of the cost.

Alan Beith MP, chairman of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, said he was concerned the proposals had the "potential to have an undue restriction on the working of the Act ... and stop requests being made in the public interest."

He added: "There's no need to introduce fees or greatly change the arrangements under which the Government introduced a costs regime. We would not want to see anything that damaged the freedom of information culture which, as we have already said, has already been put to very important use."

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: "These proposals would make it harder for requesters to ask penetrating questions and easier for authorities to avoid scrutiny." One of the biggest costs in considering requests is when it triggers a referral to a minister.

But Mr Frankel said the new rules would mean more interventions by ministers and therefore more requests declined for reasons of costs. "It means ministers will be deciding requests on whether the release makes headlines or not - and that's not what the legislation is about. Ministers should leave these decisions to the experienced FOI officers."

Oliver Heald, shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, said: "I fear the Government may be attempting to close down public scrutiny by curtailing the public's right to know with this more restrictive regime. The introduction of the Freedom of Information Act has clearly become too embarrassing for this disaster-prone Labour Government."
Yesterday, the Government rejected the idea of a flat-rate fee to submit an FOI request.

Responding to the Constitutional Affairs Committee's report, Freedom of Information - one year on, Lord Falconer, Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor, said: "I welcome and share the overall assessment of the committee that the implementation of the FoI Act has been a 'significant success'. Freedom of information has benefited the people - that's what it was intended for, and we need to continue to build on its success. But it has to be balanced with good government. It would be wrong not to make adjustments in light of experience."

Information being withheld

* Full advice on the war in Iraq. A leak to the media prompted the Government to partially release details about the formulation of the Attorney General's advice but ministers are fighting attempts for further disclosure.

* The public cost of security for Camilla, right, Harry and William. The Government says that the Royal Family are exempted from the Freedom of Information Act.

* Documents relating to the discussions leading up to the reclassification of cannabis. The Home Office says disclosure would prevent the formulation of future policy.

* The impact on the economy of policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions - on grounds of cost.

* Communications between the US and UK governments on obsolete vessels which need dismantling. Ministers have refused to disclose information to environmental campaigners despite an order by the Information Commissioner.

* ID cards. The Information Commissioner has ordered the Government to disclose documents on feasibility and impact of ID cards but the Home Office has instructed lawyers to resist the order.

* Trident - The Ministry of Defence refused to confirm or deny whether the Government has any information for the consideration of the replacement of Britain's nuclear deterrent.

* Papers concerning the role of the Government in the arrest and detention of UK citizens and residents in Guantanamo Bay have been held back. One of the arguments used is that disclosure will harm international relations.

* Information about doctors' appraisal dates and training has been refused by the Department of Work and Pensions on grounds of costs.

* Data relied on for yesterday's consultants' report on the impact of the FOI Act has been declined as it would curtail free and frank discussion between ministers.


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