New Government plans to reform Freedom of Information laws will make it easier for officials to keep sensitive information secret and will hit journalists especially hard, it was claimed today.
The director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, Maurice Frankel, said that proposals published by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, today would hit MPs, journalists and others who use the Freedom of Information Act to discover Whitehall secrets.
At present, government departments usually have to answer requests that cost them less than £600 to process. But Lord Falconer has proposed including within the £600 limit the time taken by officials to consider each request.
Mr Frankel said: "By doing this, what they are actually going to do is make it much easier for authorities to refuse on costs grounds.
"It would reduce the amount of politically-sensitive and politically-embarrassing information that would be disclosed.
"It would hit experienced users of the act, particularly journalists, campaign groups and MPs."
Allowing consideration time to be included in the £600 limit would lead to an 8 per cent fall in requests, a report from the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) said.
It would also save £4.7 million a year in officials' time.
In another proposal from Lord Falconer, a series of requests from the same company, organisation, individual or connected individuals – even if the requests are on different topics – could also be dealt with together and refused on cost grounds.
This would lead to a further 11 per cent fall in the number of requests, saving just under £1 million a year, the report said.
However, the Government has rejected the idea of a flat-rate fee to submit an FOI request.
The DCA's independent review of the FOI Act's impact, written by economic consultants Frontier Economics, found central government was expected to receive 34,000 requests a year once patterns settled down.
The study showed that journalists made 10 per cent of central government FOI requests, which accounted for 20 per cent of officials' time.
"Requests from journalists tend to be more complex and consequently more expensive," said the study.
In total, dealing with FOI requests was costing central government £24.4 million a year, the report said. Other public authorities covered by the act — such as town halls — faced a total annual bill of £11.1 million.
Ministers will consider responses to today's plans to change the rules before making a decision, a DCA spokesman said.