Charities, trade unions and human rights groups have joined forces with journalists to urge the Government not to weaken the Freedom of Information Act.
Yesterday the government’s Independent Commission on Freedom of Information published a selection of responses to its consultation on changing the act. They revealed widespread support from public authorities for charges to be imposed and for lower cost limits to make it easier for them to reject complex FoI questions.
But a huge variety of groups have given evidence about the importance protecting FoI for the benefit of democracy and society.
The Methodist Church said: “Importantly it is the poorest, and those who seek information about the poorest, who need the FoI system most. The poorest are easiest to ignore, the easiest to misrepresent and the least likely to get their questions answered satisfactorily without the backing of law.
“Any financial charge on FoI is likely to distance this system from those who need it most.”
The National Council of Voluntary Organisations warned: “Further restrictions on exemptions to the FOIA, and the possibility of charges for FoI requests, would dramatically reduce the voluntary sector’s ability to understand how their beneficiaries are being served by public authorities and how they can better hold them to account."
It said: “Because of the fragmented state and poor practice in routinely published data, charities must routinely submit FoI requests to public bodies nationwide to determine the national picture.
“Any charges, whether flat fees for submitting or charges based on staff time would quickly run into thousands of pounds. This would reduce charities ability to access information that helps them better understand and support their beneficiaries and divert charitable funds to paying for information that should be freely available.”
The National Deaf Children’s Society uses FoI requests to “monitor the amount that councils spend on their education provision for deaf children and young people and to track the numbers of staff that are employed to work”.
It said: “This information is crucial in allowing us to ensure that services deaf children rely on are preserved and that a good level of service is being provided.”
The Royal National Institute for the Blind said it has used FoI to obtain information showing the denial of health treatments which hospitals were “legally obliged to provide to people losing their sight”.
It said: “This has aided RNIB’s efforts to help prevent avoidable sight loss in the UK population.”
The Media Lawyers Association warned that the proposed fees and changes to cost limits “would have a serious impact on the operation of FOIA and that taken together they would substantially undermine the effectiveness and purpose of FOIA”.
It said: “The MLA’s experience of obstruction by many public authorities in the provision of information would only be accentuated by any of these proposals which would become yet a further tool in the armoury of public authorities who wished to oppose the disclosure of public interest information under FOIA.”
The National Union of Journalists warned that charges for FoI requests would “inflict insurmountable problems on freelance journalists, students and even small media companies”.
In an extensive submission, news publishers trade body the News Media Association said charges for FoI requests would be “a tax on a democratic right”.
It also said: “It would also represent the triumph of a wilfully blinkered view of FoI that only sees costs and burdens and ignores the great value to society and the economy of openness, scrutiny and accountability.
“Considering these benefits, the tiny fraction of an authority’s budget that is spent on FoI represents great value for money.”
It used an example from the local press to make the case for the public good done by FoI.
“The Hull Daily Mail has recently been covering the plight of the family of a young woman who committed suicide shortly after being refused a place on a ward by nurses at the mental health trust.
“Her family were concerned about the standard of care their daughter had received in the run-up to her death and sought more information from the trust, which would not hand it over but instead said they had to go through FoI.
“The young woman’s mother described this as ‘an ordeal’, saying that ‘every single piece of paper we have requested has gone through a similar convoluted and tortuous process.’
“A coroner later found that Sally’s death could have been prevented and criticised the mental health trust for the way it treated the family.
“If a charging system was in place, families in these situations would have had pay over and over again for requests, reviews and appeals that they were forced to go through in their protracted battles with public authorities who in many cases should have just given the information when asked.
“Many people in this situation would simply not use FOI, even though they might have very good reason to.”
It warned that FoI charges would mean local newspapers paying thousands just to keep “regular, diligent tabs on town halls”.
It said: “The more information on that which is kept in the dark, the less incentive and pressure there is to ensure that every penny is spent wisely. The predictable result will be that it will not be spent wisely and that more would find its way into business class travel for officials, lavish car allowances, vanity projects, rip-off staffing agencies, bungling contractors, dubious medical treatments and all the other places where money ends up when there is insufficient scrutiny to put a stop to it.
“Any meaningful, far-sighted cost-benefit analysis of FoI would conclude that cutting back on FoI is a false economy and that extending it is the enlightened way forward.”
Telegraph Media Group said that FoI is “wrongly considered a menace by many organisations”.
It said: “Reputation management is their starting point, rather than the public’s right to know.”
It said that the number of FoI requests is inflated by the fact that many press officers within public sector and government “now routinely advise our journalists to submit FoI requests for simple information that were once answered and could be answered immediately”.
It also warned that public authorities “game” the Fol system in order to avoid answering FoI questions.
It said these tactics include:
- taking significant amounts of time to carry out internal reviews into responses that were themselves delayed
- taking months supposedly to carry out public interest tests
- waiting until the end of the 20-day period to advise that responding to the request would exceed the statutory cost limit.
It revealed that one Telegraph journalist sought information from the Department of Health and was told to narrow the request so it would pertain to a specific directorate.
When he asked for a list of directorates so that he could focus his request, he was told that was being considered as a separate and new FoI request – bringing further delay.
The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative warned that any actions by the UK Government to “reduce the scope and effectiveness for citizens of FoI in this country would damage its stated pledges to spread this legislation to more Commonwealth partners”.
It said: “Arguments for state secrecy, and the inconvenience or cost of responding to citizen requests for FoI, are ones that will reverberate among lazy, disorganised or secretive and unaccountable government departments in other Commonwealth countries.”
The union UNITE said: "We can see the Freedom of Information Commission in a deeper context when taken together with, for example, the Lobbying Act and the Trade Union Bill. It appears that the government is attacking the very public it is supposed to serve through its austerity and privatisation agenda, and then moving to silence any criticism of this agenda."