The Campaign for Freedom of Information welcomed today’s announcement which suggests that the government are no longer committed to introducing major restrictions to the Freedom of Information Act. Instead it has announced a further consultation, asking whether changes to the Act are needed at all.
The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said: “This raises the strong possibility that the government will eventually decide to leave the current arrangements untouched. If it does decide to make any changes they are likely to be far more limited than the highly damaging restrictions which had been proposed.”
He added: “The decision will now be deferred until after Tony Blair stands down. It is extremely unlikely that Gordon Brown, who is promising to ‘renew’ the government, would attempt to do so by neutering the FOI Act in the way that had been proposed.”
The new consultation period runs until June 21 and the government says it may take up to a further 3 months to decide what to do. Tony Blair is expected to leave office at the end of June.
Last year the government announced that it intended to make two changes to the fees regulations under the Freedom of Information Act, making it significantly easier for requests to be refused on cost grounds. In December it consulted about draft regulations to implement these changes. The consultation was limited to technical questions about the fine tuning of the proposals. It did not ask whether they were needed at all. Today’s decision means the government is now considering, and seeking views on, this key issue.
In its response to the previous consultation, the Campaign expressed its “serious concern not only about the proposals themselves but about the way in which they have been developed. Neither requesters nor public bodies have been asked about their experiences of the legislation, about any problems they may have encountered, whether any changes to address them are necessary and, if so, what these might be…The absence of public involvement or consultation on the wider issues is not merely procedurally unfair, it has distorted the exercise itself.”
A review commissioned by the Government last year showed that the total annual costs of the FOI Act, across the whole public sector, are £35.5 million. It estimated that the proposed changes would save up to £10 million, but allow up to 17,500 requests which are currently answered to be refused on cost grounds.
The Campaign’s response to the previous consultation can be read at:
The new consultation document issued by the Department for Constitutional Affairs today can be found at: http://www.dca.gov.uk/consult/dpr2007/cp2806.htm
The DCA press release on the new consultation can be found at: http://www.gnn.gov.uk/environment/fullDetail.asp?ReleaseID=275094&NewsAreaID=2&NavigatedFromDepartment=True
Maurice Frankel or Katherine Gundersen 020 7490 3958