Baroness Ashton: We're not targeting journalists with FoI changes

In week four of Press Gazette’s Don’t Kill FoI campaign, Baroness Ashton, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for State for Constitutional Affairs, has made an apparent U-turn by promising that changes to the Freedom of Information Act won’t be rushed through.

In December, the Government indicated that new curbs on FoI requests could be introduced on 19 March – just 11 days after the end of the official consultation period.

But Ashton assured us this would not happen and said there would be a parliamentary debate – even though the changes can be made by the Secretary of State under delegated powers.

Under the proposed Freedom of Information Data Protection Regulations 2007, the Government is proposing to increase the number of FoI requests thrown out on cost grounds – irrespective of the public interest – by around 17,000 a year. This will be done by aggregating requests from the same organisation and counting the cost of considering whether to answer a request when deciding whether it has exceeded the cost limit (£600 for central government and £450 for other public authorities).

The proposed changes have met with outrage from the Society of Editors and the Newspaper Society and led more than 700 journalists – including dozens of national and regional newspaper editors – to sign Press Gazette’s petition opposing them.

Julie Tomlin asked Baroness Ashton about the proposed changes.

Why are you proposing to change the Freedom of Information Act?

I am very committed on behalf of the Government to a good, well functioning Freedom of Information Act. I mean that because you get better government if it is more open and transparent – that’s fundamental.

When you look at how the Act works – and we’ve had the benefit of a little bit of time now to do that, and we’ve talked to not so much central government, but bodies such as the health service, police and others – it’s an opportunity to reflect whether things are working in the best possible way. We spend about £25 million on FoI – money well spent. We look at how much we spend linked to the work people are being asked to do, both centrally and locally, because people who are doing FoI requests are not doing something else.

The first thing, which we’ve floated in our draft regulations and we are really consulting about, is including the time that people spend reading as part of the time that we offer as available. It will make a difference in some areas to some requests, but it won’t in our view, from the evidence we’ve seen, cause a downturn in the effort to get information out in the public domain.

The second is that you can get lots and lots of requests that actually form a pattern, either as a campaign or when you put them all together there’s a picture. We wanted to be able to add those up and say that should count rather than them all being seen as separate.

What it’s not meant to do is to stop good journalism.

There is concern that the length of time from the end of the consultation period on 8 March to the time the Act is due to be laid is so short that the consultation process is not a serious exercise.

It won’t be done and dusted [by 19 March]. The consultation closes and then we have to formally look at the responses that we’ve had and then we have to lay the regulations before Parliament, but I haven’t been given a date for laying the Act. For the benefit of your readers I have no idea what 19 March is. I don’t have a date for laying the Act.

From my perspective, we have to close the consultation, we have to look at what the responses are, we then have to decide if we need to alter the draft regulations, in which case we have to go across government for clearance, or whether we feel, in the light of consultation, we are comfortable with them as they stand. We then have to lay them before Parliament and then we will have to debate them, because there will no doubt be a debate. That whole process will take place some time after 8 March. It will be for the business managers to tell me what date I’ve got and that will be in the public domain as soon as I know it. But the critical point from your point of view is that there is no curtailed moment when we are duty bound to have thought about the consultation and done it. In other words, quite reasonably you are saying to me ‘hang on, that’s only 11 days”. Speedy isn’t really the word, it would be quite impossible, even though we are looking at the consultation input as we go on and I’m meeting a lot of people.

More than 700 journalists have signed Press Gazette’s petition opposing these changes. What do you have to say to those who fear they will have an adverse impact on journalism?

It’s good to hear the concerns of journalists and the more they can explain them to me, the better. I’m delighted that through Press Gazette I can ask people to talk to me.

We want to make sure that the operation of this does not prevent good journalism from asking proper and reasonable questions.

There are some commercial organisations that rely on requests to those bodies, perhaps health bodies, to update their information quite regularly, and it can take quite a lot of time to get that information because the request can be very general. It’s arguable whether somebody in a health trust or hospital spending a huge amount of time gathering information to benefit a commercial organisation is always the best use of their time. It might be, but sometimes it might not.

The Freedom of Information Act was a main plank of the Labour Party manifesto. Now it is in power isn’t the Government backtracking on its promises?

It’s not backtracking. I first campaigned for freedom of information 30 years ago now. When you have implemented it, you have to look back and say, what’s the impact? Are there things that we need to look again at, change or alter? If you talk to health authorities or other organisations, local government, there have been occasions when it’s been quite difficult for them in terms of the amount of time and effort they’ve had to put in – in the kinds of examples I’ve given, either that they can’t get the requester to refine it or because it’s such a huge amount of information. The inclination of everyone I’ve spoken to is to give information and they are absolutely positive about doing so.

It appears these changes are specifically targeting journalists – what do you say to that?

It’s absolutely not targeting journalists. It’s targeting the time that people are having to spend when they are not doing the jobs they would be doing normally. One of the things I should say about how I approach FoI is that we want to see much more proactive release of information. In other words, getting – as a routine way of operating – the 100,000 public bodies covered by the Act to be putting information out as a matter of course and reducing the requirement on people to make requests. That’s actually happening, because as people get regular requests in they realise that people are interested in particular pieces of information, so they think ‘oh, we’ll put those out on a regular basis’and that I think is an important part of all this.

Journalists have been anxious to make sure we understand the particular problems they have, whether they are written or broadcast journalists, that’s why we’re keen to hear from as many of them as possible to talk through their concerns. But there are equally other organisations that we want to make sure we reach, to see the impact.

Is there a perception that journalists are wasting local authority and other organisations’ time – particularly in sending in a lot of FoI requests?

When people talk about requesters, I don’t think of journalists in this particular context. I think of organisations to whom it’s of great benefit to get as much information on a particular subject as possible.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but occasionally that can be a massive burden.

To add your support to Press Gazette’s Don’t Kill FoI campaign, see the FoI section on www.pressgazette.co.uk and follow the instructions to sign our online petition.

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