Fees announcement

The government announced today that it has decided not to proceed with its proposals to amend the FOI fees regulations. Instead it has announced measures designed to make government more open including a review of the 30 year rule and consultation on extending the scope of the FOI Act.

In a speech on liberty the Prime Minister said:

“In the last ten years in Britain we have created a new legislative framework requiring openness and transparency in the state’s relationships with the public. The Freedom of Information Act has been a landmark piece of legislation, enshrining for the first time in our laws the public’s right to access information.

Freedom of Information (FoI) can be inconvenient, at times frustrating and indeed embarrassing for governments. But Freedom of Information is the right course because government belongs to the people, not the politicians.

I now believe there is more we can do to change the culture and the workings of government to make it more open — whilst of course continuing to maintain safeguards in areas like national security.

When anything is provided without cost, it does risk being open to abuse. However the Government does not believe that more restrictive rules on cost limits of FoI requests are the way forward. And so Jack Straw has decided, and has announced today, that we will not tighten FoI fees regulations as previously proposed.

We do this because of the risk that such proposals might have placed unacceptable barriers between the people and public information. Public information does not belong to Government, it belongs to the public on whose behalf government is conducted. Wherever possible that should be the guiding principle behind the implementation of our Freedom of Information Act.

So it is right also to consider extending the coverage of freedom of information and the Freedom of Information Act. And we are also today publishing a consultation document to consider whether additional organisations discharging a public function – including in some instances private sector companies running services for the public sector – should be brought within the scope of Freedom of Information legislation.

Freedom of Information is not simply about current discussions within government but about the restrictions we place on the publication of historical documents.

It is an irony that the information that can be made available on request on current events and current decisions is still withheld as a matter of course for similar events and similar decisions that happened 20 or 25 years ago.

Under the present arrangements historical records are transferred to the national archives and are only opened to public access after thirty years or where explicitly requested under the FoI Act. It is time to look again at whether historical records can be made available for public inspection much more swiftly than under the current arrangements.

There are of course cost and security implications of a more open approach which we will need to examine thoroughly. So I have asked Paul Dacre, Editor-in-Chief of Associated Newspapers and member of the Press Complaints Commission – working with Sir Joe Pilling, former Permanent Secretary of the Northern Ireland Office, and the eminent historian David Cannadine – to review this rule. And we look forward to receiving their proposals in the first half of 2008.”

The Campaign for Freedom of Information welcomed the announcement in a press release. The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said:

“We are extremely pleased that instead of restricting the Act the government is proposing to extend it. The original proposals would have severely undermined the legislation and suggested that the government regretted introducing the FOI Act. Now for the first time we are seeing signs that it is taking pride in it instead.”

The Government’s response to the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee’s Report, ‘Freedom of Information: the Government’s proposals for reform’ has also been published today. Commenting on the Government’s response, Chairman of the Committee Rt Hon Alan Beith MP said:

“Obviously we greatly welcome the fact that the Government has seen sense and accepted our position – and that of the many people and organisations who have made good use of freer access to information – and not changed the charging regime as they had planned. To go ahead with their proposed changes would have been a great mistake – as the expression goes; it wasn’t broke, don’t fix it.

The government’s response to the fees consultation and a summary of the responses is available here.

The consultation on extending the scope of the Act – ‘Freedom of Information Act 2000: Designation of additional public authorities’ is available here.

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