A survey of local councils, aimed at gathering information to push for restrictions to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, has been criticised by the Campaign for Freedom of Information. A body representing local authority lawyers has appealed to councils on behalf of the Local Government Association (LGA) saying the LGA is thinking of calling for changes to the Act and asking them to supply details of “problems” caused by it. [*]
The FOI Act makes a vital contribution to keeping the public properly informed, showing when public authorities are failing to meet required standards and holding government to account.
These reports produced by the Campaign summarise FOI disclosures on a range of issues including the NHS, policing, prisons, defence, asylum, immigration education, public services, political lobbying nuclear safety, environmental protection and other issues.
The government’s new FOI Commission, announced in July 2015, is looking at measures to reduce the FOI Act’s ‘burden’ on public authorities. But many of the examples below show how the Act reduces costs, by revealing and helping to deter unjustified spending.
• Disclosures under the FOI Act, (January 2014)
• 1000 FOI stories from 2006 and 2007
• FOI stories from the FOI Act’s first year
More freedom of information (FOI) requests are likely to be refused as vexatious, following official guidance issued last week. But the change removes the government’s case for introducing more fundamental and damaging restrictions to the FOI Act, says the Campaign for Freedom of Information. The Campaign is calling on the government to drop the proposals.
A major review of the Freedom of Information Act which rejects charging for FOI requests or new restrictions on access to policy discussions in Whitehall has been warmly welcomed by the Campaign for Freedom of Information which said the report “would preserve and strengthen the important advances made by the FOI Act”.
The Campaign has welcomed the Justice Committee’s report on post-legislative scrutiny of the FOI Act, which rejects charging for FOI requests or new restrictions on access to policy discussions in Whitehall. The Campaign made two written submissions to the Committee and gave oral evidence at the Committee’s first hearing on 21 February 2012. You can watch a recording of the session or read an uncorrected transcript of it.
Our initial submission described some areas where the Freedom of Information Act and Environmental Information Regulations are not working as well as they should and suggested a number of improvements such as the introduction of statutory time limits for public interest extensions and internal reviews and the lifting of some absolute exemptions. It also addressed the contracting out of public authority functions to bodies which are not subject to the Act. Recent measures to encourage this process are likely to substantially undermine the public’s rights to information. Finally, it responded to suggestions that changes to the right of access may be introduced to protect cabinet papers, introduce fees for making requests or to make it easier for public authorities to refuse requests on costs grounds. The Campaign made a supplementary submission to the Committee addressing some of the points about the Act’s exemption for policy advice made by Lord O’Donnell and Jack Straw in their evidence to the Committee. This supplementary submission also provided examples of excessive or wasteful spending revealed by FOI, which suggest the Act is likely to play an important role in exposing and deterring excessive spending, which is generally not taken into account when assessing the ‘costs’ of FOI.
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.
Draft government regulations published today could block anyone using the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act to throw light on high profile issues, say campaigners. But the government has now issued a consultation document on its proposals, something it had previously resisted doing.
The government’s new proposals to restrict use of the FOI Act are based in part on a survey carried out in January 2006 of the time needed to respond to FOI requests. This data was used to estimate the costs of the FOI Act and the possible savings from new restrictions. (These estimates are contained in a report commissioned by the Department for Constitutional Affairs from consultants ‘Frontier Economics’) .
Two months before the government’s proposals were published, the Campaign made an FOI request for the data obtained during this survey.
The request was refused by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. The DCA maintained that the information fell within the FOI exemption relating to the “formulation and development of government policy” and that the balance of public interest favoured withholding the information.
However, the survey merely describes the numbers of requests made to each government department during the week in question and provides a breakdown of the time needed to respond to them.
The Campaign has now asked the DCA to review its refusal, pointing out that (a) the requested information is largely factual (b) the FOI Act requires departments to have regard to “the particular public interest” in disclosing such factual information (c) the Act envisages that such information will be disclosed before decisions are taken (d) the DCA’s decision to refuse the request appears to completely disregard its own guidance on the exemption (e) access to the data at the time of the request could have prevented the Frontier Economics report from incorporating at least one exaggerated estimate of the volume of FOI requests being made (f) other important opportunities to make use of the data have already been lost.