Govt plans to 'neuter' FoI kicked into long grass following PG campaign

The Government has effectively kicked plans to water down the Freedom of Information Act into the long grass.

The Department of Constitutional Affairs this morning announced that it will hold an additional 12-week consultation period on its proposals to amend the Freedom of Information and Data Protection Regulations.

Effectively the move means that plans that had been condemned as "neutering" FoI for journalists may now be left for a new Prime Minister to decide.

Unlike the inital consultation, which only sought views on a narrow set of technical questions about how the changes would be implemented, the extra round of consultation announced this morning will seek views on whether the changes should be implemented at all.

In a statement, the DCA said it had received more than 200 responses to the initial consultation, with several indicating a desire to comment on the changes in principle.

The new consultation document also asks whether the government's plans would succeed in dealing with the problem of "disproportionately burdensome requests".

The u-turn on FoI follows a ten-week campaign by Press Gazette which galvanised unprecedented united opposition from the UK press against the changes.

In order to save around £10 million a year the Government was planning to throw out an extra 17,000 FoI requests annually on cost grounds alone – irrespective of the public interest.

The new rules would have worked by including more "thinking time" for officials and by aggregating different requests from the same organisation when deciding whether they had exceeded cost limits for answering requests of £450 and £600.

The first 12-week consultation on the new changes began in the middle of December and ended on March 8.

Press Gazette's 10-week Don't Kill FoI prompted an e-petition which was signed by some 1250 journalists and handed in at Number 10 Downing Street and the Department of Constitional Affairs.

The editors of The Sun, News of the World, Sunday Times, Evening Standard, Observer, Sunday Telegraph, Sunday Mirror, Guardian, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Times and People all signed the petition in an unusual united show of opposition from across the national press.

Information minister Baroness Ashton told MPs this morning that the new consultation will focus on the "principle" of the proposed changes.

Press Gazette understands that the new consultation was recommended by Baroness Ashton and then agreed across the Government.

Director of the Society of Editors Bob Satchwell, who has been at the forefront of the campaign against the FoI curbs, said: "I think the Government has thought again and listened to the powerful argument from Press Gazette and from editors across the country.

"We are very glad that the Government has listened carefully to all the arguments."

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said he was "very pleased" that the government had delayed plans to alter the act and said that the actions of campaigners such as Press Gazette had played an important role in creating an "overwhelming" negative response to the proposals.

He also said the date of the new consultation period, 21 June, was significant.

"That takes us pretty much to the doorstep of a new Prime Minister and a new Cabinet – by the time they come to consider what to do about consultation everything will have changed and they will have a different set of priorities", he said.

"This was a £10million shot in its own foot. The government was hoping to rush this through without any consultation at all – this is a very positive sign.

"There was an overwhelming hostile response from all users: campaign groups, the press, Press Gazette's own campaign and many delegations to ministers – everybody saw this as an unjustified attack which would cause real damage."

Frankel said he hoped that if the government did decide to change the act in any way that any changes would be "targeted at requests which are clearly unreasonable" and that the government would look at the issue of requesters facing "prolonged delay" for answers.

EDITOR'S COMMENT: "Let's hope Gordon Brown is now true to his word".

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