“Unacceptable commercial exploitation” of Hansard and Statutes denies the public Internet access

The public is being denied access to Hansard and to Britain’s laws on the Internet because of HMSO’s policy of commercially exploiting Crown and Parliamentary copyright, says the Campaign for Freedom of Information. The Campaign wants HMSO to waive this “unacceptable” restriction and permit free on-line access to these essential materials And it warns that the proposed privatisation of HMSO is likely to increase the commercialisation of official information.

The Campaign welcomes the fact that the government is making a growing amount of official information available to the public via the Internet. But neither Acts of Parliament nor Hansard can be found on the net: these are Crown and Parliamentary copyright, and cannot normally be reproduced electronically unless potentially substantial royalties are paid to HMSO.

In the USA, by contrast, there is no copyright in official information. Anyone connected to the Internet can read, for the cost of a local phone call, the entire Congressional Record (the equivalent of Hansard); all federal laws, bills and agency rules; Congressional voting records; Supreme Court judgements; and a considerable amount of government information. The Campaign says that in a couple of hours someone could obtain information which otherwise would have taken days to identify and weeks to collect. The volume, speed and accessibility of this information means the ordinary individual can quickly accumulate a detailed dossier of up-to-the-moment information on public policy matters in the USA. People can now make a knowledgeable contribution to a debate from which they would previously have been excluded.

This cannot be done in the UK, because Hansard and statutes are not on the Internet. In a letter to Mr Roger Freeman, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel says: “these materials are available only through expensive commercial services which are beyond the means of the ordinary individual and most voluntary organisations. This is disappointing and frustrating and wrong in principle. It is unacceptable that our laws and parliamentary proceedings should be restricted in order that HMSO may exploit them commercially.”

The Campaign says British statutes can be obtained on-line from a commercial service but the cost – $270 an hour – is prohibitive for ordinary users. Electronic access to Hansard costs more than £2,500 a year. Even so, the most recent weeks are not available on-line at all: paper copies have to be bought at a cost of £11.70 a day for both Houses of Parliament.

The Campaign is shortly to open its own Internet “web” site telling people about their rights to official information. It has asked HMSO for permission to reproduce, free of charge, the text of relevant access to information laws – several of which result from private member’s bills which the Campaign itself originally drafted. But it fears that under existing policy, permission may be refused. The Campaign says it would be wrong “to allow commercial considerations to take precedence over the need to ensure that materials of such central importance to a democratic society are freely available to its citizens.”

The Campaign warns that the enforcement of Crown copyright in such materials may not be feasible. One or two UK statutes have already been put on the Internet by Australian and American universities. Because of the ease of ‘scanning’ text onto computers, UK users are likely sooner or later do so too. For HMSO to attempt to enforce its rights in the courts, Mr Frankel said, “would have uncomfortable echoes of the Spycatcher affair with, if anything, even greater capacity to attract international ridicule: it is one thing to ask the courts to restrain disclosures about the security services – quite another to suppress the publication of our own country’s laws. Would it not be more realistic to accept from the outset that such materials should be freely available on the Internet – both because it is right in principle, and because any other approach is likely to be unenforceable?”

The Campaign wants Britain to follow Australia’s lead: Australia’s Hansard is now available free of charge on the Internet the next day. The government of New South Wales has announced that copyright in state legislation will no longer be enforced.

But this would run directly counter to current trends in HMSO pricing. The Campaign says such problems will become intractable if HMSO is privatised, as the government proposed last month. The Campaign says: “At present HMSO is at least subject to a degree of political oversight. However, privatisation will both ensure that HMSO acts from commercial motives, without regard for the public interest in making official information freely available, and remove the opportunities for political influence over pricing decisions. These would be deeply undesirable developments.”

The Campaign also wants the government to put more official information on the Internet. It says useful initiatives have already been taken: most departments’ press releases are now available; so are school inspection reports; air quality data; advice on travelling abroad; and guidance to individuals on applications under some statutory schemes. But it says the information is being selected in a somewhat random manner: the full text of 40 citizens charters can be read on-line, but only a handful of government consultation documents are available – most dealing with Internet issues.

It wants departments to be urged to follow the lead of the Treasury, which systematically makes detailed information available, including the full minutes of the monthly meetings between the Governor of the Bank of England and the Chancellor; the reports of the Chancellor’s Panel of Independent Forecasters; complete budget documentation; the text of all speeches by senior officials and ministers; all press releases and other information.

The Campaign is also calling on the government to ensure that departments use the Internet to tell people of their rights to information under the ‘open government’ code of practice; to publish internal departmental instructions, consultation documents and white papers; and to make available the text of government bills, amendments and notes on clauses.

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