Parliamentary motion on the government’s proposed FOI restrictions

Has your MP signed the Parliamentary motion calling on the Government not to proceed with its proposals to make it easier for public authorities to refuse Freedom of Information requests on cost grounds?

A list of MPs that have signed the motion is available here. If your MP has not signed, please encourage them to do so. You should ask them to sign Early Day Motion 80 on the Freedom of Information Act 2000. You can write to your MP at the House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA or using the action page on Unlock Democracy’s website http://action.unlockdemocracy.org.uk/save-foia – put your postcode into the ‘participate’ box, it will generate a letter for you to send and suggest some points that you may want to make, though it’s always better to compose it yourself if you can (Note: your letter and email address will be retained by Unlock Democracy who are working with us on this issue and you may hear from them about the subject).

The motion (known as an “EDM”), which the Campaign has helped to co-ordinate, follows publication of the Government Response to the Justice Committee’s Report: Post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (Cm 8505) which proposed a series of changes to the Act to make it easier for public authorities to refuse ‘disproportionately burdensome’ requests, particulary from requesters said to be making ‘industrial’ use of the Act. But the proposed changes would make it easier for authorities to refuse all requests including those which are modest in scope and of real public interest. There are four proposals:

  1. Authorities can currently refuse FOI requests if the estimated cost of finding and extracting the information exceeds certain limits. The government wants to allow them to also count the time they spend considering a request. Any request involving new, complex or contentious issues would be at risk of being refused under this proposal, simply because of the time needed to work through unfamiliar issues. The less experienced the FOI staff are, the longer this process is likely to take and the greater the chance that the cost limit will be exceeded. Moreover, a cost refusal takes no account of the public interest in disclosure, so many important requests could be refused. The Justice Committee, which considered this issue during its post legislative scrutiny of the FOI Act, expressly rejected this option (Session 2012-13 HC 96-I, para 60).
  2. The cost limits themselves could be lowered. (These are currently £600 for government departments and £450 for other authorities).
  3. Authorities would be allowed to refuse unrelated requests from the same individual or organisation if their combined effect is too time consuming. This could affect the ability of local newspapers, local organisations and even MPs to obtain information on a range of issues from one authority.
  4. Charges could be made for appealing to the Information Rights Tribunal. These may deter requesters from pursuing well-founded appeals and slow the development of case law.

Any one of these measures would have a potentially serious impact on the operation of the Act. Together they would substantially undermine the Act.

The motion calling on the government to withdraw its proposals has been co-sponsored by an all-party group of MPs made up of:

Sir Richard Shepherd (Con)
Rt Hon John Healey (Lab)
Dr Julian Huppert (Lib Dem)
Caroline Lucas (Green)
Mark Durkan (SDLP)
David Winnick (Lab)

The Campaign has written to all MPs encouraging them to sign the EDM and enclosing a copy of a letter it has written to the Justice minister Lord McNally about the proposals. The full text of the motion is below.

Early Day Motion No. 80 Freedom of Information Act 2000

“That this House notes that the Government is proposing to make it easier for public authorities to refuse Freedom of Information requests on cost grounds in order to prevent disproportionate use of the Act by some requesters; expresses concern that requests made by those making moderate use of the legislation will also be more easily refused under the proposals; is particularly concerned at the proposal that the time which authorities spend considering whether to release information should be taken into account when calculating whether the cost limit has been reached; further notes that this proposal was expressly rejected by the Justice Committee in its post legislative review of the Act; believes that this proposal will penalise requests raising new or complex issues which will inevitably require substantial time to consider; observes that the Government’s objective will in any case be achieved following recent decisions of the Upper Tribunal that requests which involve a “disproportionate, manifestly unjustified, inappropriate or improper use” of the Act can be refused as vexatious; and calls on the Government not to proceed with its proposals.”

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