Time limit for prosecution of offences under section 77 of the FOI Act

The Information Commissioner’s office statement that the university at the centre of the ‘climategate’ email scandal did not deal with FOI requests as it should have done under the legislation has received a lot of media attention. Section 77 of the Act makes it an offence for any person to deliberately destroy, alter or conceal a record after it has been requested with the intention of preventing its disclosure. The offence is triable only in the magistrate’s court. However, under section 127(1) of the Magistrates Court Act 1980, proceedings for all such offences must be brought within 6 months of the offence occurring.

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Policy advice released after months not decades

A version of this article by the Campaign’s director, Maurice Frankel, appeared in Press Gazette on 2 May 2008.

In the past, officials’ advice to ministers, and the discussions leading to it, have been confidential. You could see it after 30 years, but not before. The Freedom of Information Act has shattered that convention.

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Should policy discussions be kept under wraps?

This article by the Campaign’s director, Maurice Frankel, was published in The Independent on 28 March 2008.

Should policy discussions between officials be disclosed under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act? Or should they be withheld to reassure civil servants that they can speak frankly, safe from the press and public’s prying eyes?

These issues were central to two recent High Court cases. Each involved the Government challenging rulings by the Information Tribunal that such material should be disclosed.

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FOI – the first year

This article by the Campaign’s director, Maurice Frankel, appeared in Press Gazette on 13 January 2006

During more than 20 years of campaigning for a freedom of information act, two questions repeatedly nagged me. The obvious one: would Britain ever get an FOI Act? And the more troubling one: if we did, would it be worth having?

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It’s Britain, so some doors are locked

A version of this article by the Campaign’s director, Maurice Frankel, appeared in The Independent on 31 December 2005

The Freedom of Information Act has begun to open doors – but is yet to be fully tested against those the government is determined to keep locked.

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FOI and journalists

A version of this article by Maurice Frankel appeared in Press Gazette on 17 December 2004

After a four year delay to allow public authorities to prepare, the Freedom of Information Act finally comes into force on January 1st. It should provide journalists with a valuable tool for looking behind the gloss and spin at the actual documents in authorities’ files. Some authorities accept that they will have to adopt a more open stance and are likely to respond positively to press requests for information. Others will carry on as before, until forced to do otherwise.

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Don’t be afraid: open the files

A version of this article by Maurice Frankel appeared in The Times on 14 December 2004

Less than three weeks until the Freedom of Information Act comes into force. From January 1, the public will have new rights to peer into a public authority’s files and check how well it is doing its job. People who want to know why they aren’t getting the service they expect, are unhappy with a proposal, or want to satisfy themselves that the right decision was taken, will now be able to see the paperwork or emails for themselves.

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Your new rights to information

A version of this article by the Campaign’s director, Maurice Frankel, appeared in The Guardian on 14 December 2004

On January 1 the long-awaited Freedom of Information Act finally comes into force. The Act gives the public important new rights to the information held by public authorities. Worried about possible changes to your local school or hospital? The Act should allow you to see the evidence for them. Want to know whether the police are doing enough about burglaries? Use the legislation to probe their response times and clear-up rates. Unhappy about a regulatory body that never seems to do anything when people complain? Ask for their internal guidance on handling complaints and see their staff are doing what they’re supposed to do.

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FOI: ‘to deter malpractice’

A version of this article appeared in the March-April 2004 edition of Free Press journal
published by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.

“A government which pursues secret aims, or which operates in greater secrecy than the effective conduct of its proper functions requires, or which turns information services into propaganda agencies, will lose the trust of the people.” Despite its contemporary ring this is not a recent quote: it comes from the 1972 Franks report on the old Official Secrets Act. It shows how long the dangers of excessive secrecy to government itself have been recognized.

The theme was taken up by the recent Phillis report into the government communications service. The report argued that, properly implemented, the Freedom of Information Act would deter partisan reporting and spin and provide an essential opportunity for the government to rebuild trust. But it warned that some of the Act’s shortcomings could make things worse. In particular, it called on the government to voluntarily renounce the ministerial veto which allows ministers to overrule the Information Commissioner in key areas. Unfortunately, the government has refused to do so.

The Hutton report did not directly refer to the issue of secrecy, but the openness of the inquiry itself made the point far more eloquently. By the time the report was published, the public had seen the evidence, understood its implications and appreciated how misleading the government’s own account of its conduct had been. Remarkably, none of this was reflected in the Hutton report itself. But this only served to increase the scepticism of a public which had seen the material itself. As William Rees-Mogg put it in The Times “Public opinion has overturned Lord Hutton on appeal”.

One of the purposes of an FOI Act is to deter malpractice in government and allow the public to check that authorities are doing their job properly. Many requests will be prompted by a suspicion – perhaps unjustified – of some government shortcoming. An authority which fails to respond openly can only reinforce the belief that something disreputable is being hidden. But an authority which goes out of its way to answer properly, even if the news is not all good, has a real chance of persuading people that it is trying to address, not cover up, its problems.

Alastair Campbell, the prime minister’s former press chief, in his post-Hutton statement may have put his finger on a real issue when he said: “If the public knew the truth about politicians they would be pleasantly surprised”. If this is true, then the secrecy which too often characterises government’s behaviour must be deeply counterproductive, serving only to conceal how conscientiously the system works. It can only be in the government’s interests to let the public see more. Of course, if Campbell’s dictum is not true, the case for FOI as a check on misbehaviour becomes greater than ever.

Maurice Frankel is director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information

Publication Schemes Report

This paper examines central government publication schemes and highlights some examples of good practice.