The Justice Committee’s report on Courts and Tribunal Fees has endorsed the proposal, made by the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information that the right of appeal to the First-tier Tribunal (FTT) under the Freedom of Information Act should be abolished. The Committee does not appear to have examined the case for this change itself. It simply reported that it saw no reason to disagree with the Commission’s view. The Campaign believes that if the proposal went ahead, it would significantly undermine the operation of the Act.
A Justice Committee report published today supports the abolition of the main right to appeal against the Information Commissioner’s decisions under the Freedom of Information Act. This would “seriously undermine the FOI Act” says the Campaign for Freedom of Information.
Today’s report from the Commission on Freedom of Information does not call for the severe restrictions that had initially seemed likely, according to the Campaign for Freedom of Information. The report sets out a mixture of proposals, many of which would enhance the FOI Act. However the Campaign says a proposal to remove the right of appeal against the Information Commissioner’s (IC’s) decisions to a specialist tribunal would undermine the Act’s enforcement system.
A statement issued last night by the Cabinet Office minister responsible for FOI, Matt Hancock, said the government “will not make any legal changes” to the FOI Act. The Campaign said this suggested that the Act would not be weakened.
The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said: “The Commission has stepped back from the one sided agenda which the government initially appeared to set for it, of restricting access to internal policy discussions, introducing charges for requests and making it easier for authorities to refuse requests. Instead it has also looked at the case for improving the legislation. The government itself has clearly been scalded by the criticism it has received from the press and public and made it clear it’s not prepared to take its initial agenda forward. We now need to ensure that the Act is extended to contractors providing public services and bodies like the National Crime Agency which have been deliberately excluded.”
The Campaign has published an updated version of its response to the Commission on Freedom of Information, which it has also sent to the Commission. Its original submission contained a survey of Tribunal decisions which at that time was incomplete. The updated version contains the complete survey.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information has responded to comments about the Freedom of Information Act made by Chris Grayling, Leader of the House, during Business Questions on 29 October 2015. Mr Grayling said the Act is being “misused” as “a research tool to generate stories for the media, and that is not acceptable”.
The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said:
“The FOI Act exists to help hold government to account, improve the public’s understanding of what it does does, to show whether policies are working and identify where public services need to be improved. Journalists are key users of the Act for those purposes and no-one should be surprised if that involves producing ‘stories’. That’s how the public learns what is going on.
Mr Grayling says he’s in favour of people using FOI to understand why and how government takes decisions. But the government has just set up the Commission on FOI to consider measures to restrict access to information about the decision-making process. He should tell them to look at ways of opening the process up instead.”
UPDATE 28/10/15: Lord Burns has replied to the Campaign’s letter below. The reply says that the statement was only intended to imply that individual contributions would be anonymised. The Commission has now removed the statement and promised it will publish the evidence it receives.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information has written to Lord Burns, chair of the Commission on Freedom of Information, expressing concern at the Commission’s proposal to anonymise any evidence that it cites in its report.
Sweeping restrictions to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act are being considered by the body set up to consider the legislation, according to the Campaign for Freedom of Information.
After sitting for 3 months, the Commission on Freedom of Information, set up by the government this July, has today finally invited the public to submit evidence to it . Its consultation document confirms that it is considering whether public authorities’ internal discussions should be made more difficult to obtain and whether ministers’ ability to veto disclosures should be strengthened. It is also considering changing the way the Act is enforced, which could reduce the public’s rights, and reducing the Act’s ‘burden’ on public authorities. Off the record briefings suggest this could include charging for FOI requests.
140 media bodies, campaign groups and others  have written to the Prime Minister expressing ‘serious concern’ at the government’s approach to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
The organisations are particularly concerned at the Commission on Freedom of Information, announced on July 17th this year. They say its terms of reference make clear that ‘its purpose is to consider new restrictions to the Act’  and that there is no indication that it is expected to consider how the right of access might need to be improved.
The Campaign has responded to a Ministry of Justice consultation proposing the introduction of fees for appeals against decisions of the Information Commissioner to the First-tier Tribunal.
We do not support the proposal. We think the proposed fees, of £100 for a case determined on the papers and £600 for an appeal involving an oral hearing, will deter many requesters from pursuing potentially successful appeals under the Freedom of Information Act or Environmental Information Regulations. It will be the public, and in particular, the public interest in the accountability of public authorities, that will be damaged.
The Ministry of Justice is consulting on proposals that fees should be introduced for appeals to the Tribunal against Information Commissioner FOI decisions. The proposals would have serious implications for individual FOI requesters and the general public. However, figuring out precisely where these proposals can be found is a little tricky.