UK: Freedom of Information Act must not be weakened

UK: Freedom of Information Act must not be weakened - Transparency

ARTICLE 19 has signed a letter, along with 140 press and campaign organisations, to Matthew Hancock, Minister for the Cabinet Office, expressing serious concern at the Government’s approach to the Freedom of Information 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 letter also expresses concern at government proposals to introduce fees for tribunal appeals against the Information Commissioner’s FOI decisions. These are currently free of charge. Government proposals would require requesters to pay £100 for an appeal based on written submissions and £600 for one involving an oral hearing. The letter says the introduction of fees for Employment Tribunal appeals has led to a drastic decrease in the number of cases brought and says a similar effect on the number of FOI appeals is likely.

The letter

The Rt Hon Matthew Hancock MP
Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General
70 Whitehall
London SW1A 2AS

13 August 2015

Dear Mr Hancock,

Concerns regarding Freedom of Information Commission and Tribunal Fees

We, the undersigned organisations, who are all involved in the Open Government Network, are writing to express our deep concern about two recent developments which seriously threaten the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. We regard the Act as a fundamental pillar of the UK’s openness arrangements. So too did the coalition government which stated that the Act had been “successful in achieving its core aims of increased openness, transparency and accountability”. We do not believe that the Act’s important rights should be restricted and consider that attempts to do so would be likely to undermine the Open Government Partnership (OGP) process itself.

First, we are concerned at the nature of the inquiry to be undertaken by the Freedom of Information Commission announced on July 17th. Its terms of reference indicate that it is designed to focus solely on the case for restricting the FOI right of access. It will consider whether ‘sensitive information’ is sufficiently protected; whether the ‘safe space’ for policy development is properly recognised; and whether measures are needed to moderate ‘the burden of the Act on public authorities’. There is no suggestion that the Commission will consider improving the Act, for example, by enhancing the right of access, increasing the number of organisations subject to the Act or removing unnecessary obstacles to disclosure. We note that the FOI Act was fully reviewed by the Justice Committee in 2012 which reported that the Act had been “a significant enhancement of our democracy” and concluded “We do not believe that there has been any general harmful effect at all on the ability to conduct business in the public service, and in our view the additional burdens are outweighed by the benefits.” The Justice Committee review took seven months during which time it considered 140 pieces of evidence and heard oral evidence from 37 witnesses. By contrast the FOI Commission is due to report by the end of November, has a composition which overwhelmingly reflects the interests of government and an extremely limited remit which does not suggest that a thorough, open-minded and properly considered inquiry is likely.

We ask the Government to publish its reasons for limiting the Commission’s remit solely to measures that would restrict the right of access while omitting any consideration of what might be needed to enhance access under the Act.

Second, and in relation to ‘the burden of the Act on public authorities’, the Government has just published proposals to introduce new Tribunal fees including those for appeals to the First-tier Tribunal against the Information Commissioner’s FOI decisions. Unlike other tribunal proceedings, which typically involve the appellant’s private rights, FOI appeals generally seek to promote the public interest by making information publicly available. The introduction of fees for appeals to the Employment Tribunal has severely cut the number of unfair dismissal claims. It seems highly likely that introducing fees for FOI appeals will have a similarly drastic impact, affecting the provision of information to the public as a whole.

Proposals that limit the scope and function of the FOI Act, as these appear designed to do, are fundamentally incompatible with the Government’s wish to become and claim to already be “the most transparent government in the world”. The purpose of the OGP, in which the signatories are all involved, is to help make government more open: these proposals would have the opposite effect. They are entirely contrary to the spirit and purpose of the OGP.

We strongly urge you not to undermine this important legislation.

The letter to the Prime Minister, which has been co-ordinated by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, has been signed by media bodies including: Archant, Belfast Telegraph, BSkyB, CN Group Limited, Computer Weekly, Coventry Telegraph, Daily Mail, Evening Standard, Exaro, Guardian News & Media Limited, i, Independent, Independent on Sunday, Johnston Press Editorial Board, KM Group, Liverpool Echo, Loughborough and Shepshed Echo, Mail on Sunday, Metro, National Union of Journalists, Newbury Weekly News, News Media Association, Newsquest, Nursing Standard, NWN Media, Oxford Mail & The Oxford Times, Press Association, Press Gazette, Private Eye, Pulse, Society of Editors, South Wales Argus, Southern Daily Echo, Southport Visitor, Sun, Sunday Life, The Sunday Times, Telegraph Media Group, The Irish News, The Sunday Post, The Times, Trinity Mirror, Trinity Mirror Regionals and Welfare Weekly.

Campaign groups and others signing the letter include: ARTICLE 19, Act Now Training, Action on Smoking and Health, Against Violence and Abuse, Animal Aid, Article 39, Big Brother Watch, British Deaf Association, British Humanist Association, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, Burma Campaign UK, Campaign Against Arms Trade, Campaign for Better Transport, Campaign for National Parks, Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, Centre for Public Scrutiny, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, Children England, Children’s Rights Alliance for England, Community Reinvest, CORE, Corporate Watch, Corruption Watch, Cruelty Free International, CTC the national cycling charity, Debt Resistance UK, Deighton Pierce Glynn, Democratic Audit, Disabled People Against Cuts, Down’s Syndrome Association, Drone Wars UK, English PEN, Equality and Diversity Forum, Finance Uncovered, Friends of the Earth, Friends, Families and Travellers, Gender Identity Research & Education Society, Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, Global Witness, Greenpeace, Hacked Off, Inclusion London, Index on Censorship, INQUEST, Involve, Jubilee Debt Campaign, Labour Campaign for Human Rights, Law Centres Network, Leigh Day, Liberty, London Mining Network, LUSH, medConfidential, Migrants’ Rights Network, Move Your Money UK, mySociety, NAT (National AIDS Trust), National Commission on Forced Marriage, Odysseus Trust, Open Data Manchester, Open Knowledge, Open Rights Group, OpenCorporates, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation, Prisoners’ Advice Service, Privacy International, Public Concern at Work, Public Interest Research Centre, Public Law Project, Race on the Agenda, Renewable Energy Foundation, Reprieve, Republic, Request Initiative, Rights Watch (UK), RoadPeace, Salmon & Trout Conservation (UK), South Northants Action Group, Spinwatch, Stop HS2, TaxPayers’ Alliance, The Corner House, Transform Justice, Trust for London, UNISON, Unite the Union, Unlock Democracy, War on Want, We Own It, WhatDoTheyKnow, Women’s Resource Centre, WWF-UK, Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, 38 Degrees and 4in10 Campaign.

The Letter (PDF).