Consultation begins on Govt bid to “neuter” Freedom of Information

Lord Falconer's Department of Constitional Affairs today began a 12-week consultation on changes to the Freedom of Information Act which journalists fear could severely curtail its power.

The proposed changes are expected to increase the number of FoI requests refused on cost grounds.

And they have already encountered fierce opposition from the Newspaper Society, the Society of Editors and dozens of individual journalists involved in the field of FoI.

Guardian FoI specialist Rob Evans has said of the proposed changes: "This is a deliberate attempt by the Government to stop reporters using the act to find out what ministers and officials are up to.”

The consultation paper published today details the draft Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2007.

These suggest that public authorities will:

  • include reading time, consideration time and consultation time in the calculation of the limit above which requests could be refused on cost grounds
  • and aggregate requests made by any person or persons apparently acting in concert to each public authority for the purposes of calculating the appropriate limit.

Many journalists believe the changes will mean that hundreds more FoI requests will be denied on cost grounds alone and severely curtail the number of FoI requests big news organisations can file.

The draft regulations are being published for a 12-week consultation and responses must be made by 8 March 2007.

To see the full consultation paper and find out how to make a response click here.

Press Gazette comment:

Many journalists have been pleasantly surprised at the positive impact of the long-awaited Freedom of Information Act over the last two years.

For all its many shortcomings it has reaped some great news stories: from the Attorney General’s advice over the Iraq war to details of food hygiene breaches at your local restaurant.

Everyone involved in journalism should do their best to ensure that the FoI Act is not now “neutered”, as the Newspaper Society put it, while it is still in its infancy.

We must protect the principle, enshrined in the current act, that Government information should be disclosed to the press unless the public interest in keeping it private clearly outweighs the public interest in making it known.

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