Information Commissioner warns of return to the 'dark ages' as Labour's Tom Watson launches alternative FoI review

The Information Commissioner has described the period before the passing of the Freedom of Information Act as the “dark ages”.

Christopher Graham (pictured) said those reviewing the act should “contrast the dynamic effect of transparency and open government on one hand with the way that we used to do things in the dark ages before the Freedom of Information Act."

He added: "I hope that we’re not going to go back to those days."

He was speaking in Parliament yesterday at the launch of an alternative review into the FoI Act hosted by Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson.

The Government’s Independent Commission on Freedom of Information received more than 30,000 submissions and a report is due after 25 January.

The commission’s consultation paper suggests it is considering proposing sweeping restrictions to FoI and the introduction of fees for making requests. It is also thought to be considering making it more difficult to obtain public authorities’ internal discussions.

In response, Press Gazette along with the Society of Editors launched the Hands Off FoI campaign. A Press Gazette petition, urging the Government not to weaken the act, has been signed by more than 42,000 people.

The alternative review into the act heard evidence from Graham along with Rachel Logan, Amnesty International’s UK law and human rights programme director, Birkbeck College’s Dr Benjamin Worthy and City University’s Dr Tom Felle.

As part of its submission to the commission, the Information Commissioner’s Office praised the work of journalists and said the introduction of flat rate fees would be “disproportionate”.

On protection given to "internal deliberations of public bodies", the ICO said current exemptions under section 35 and 36 of the act are "sufficient".

Speaking yesterday, Graham said: "The danger is that the Whitehall machine might run more smoothly, [but] you are back to that world of private government – which I just don't think fits with the 21st century."

He also suggested Whitehall’s “concern” over the FoI Act is “slightly overdone”, saying a “very small minority” of cases that come to his office result in defeats for the Government.

At the meeting, Press Gazette highlighted research showing that the cost of FoI to central Government departments is far smaller than the cost of PR and communications. Another investigation found that FoI appears to also cost local councils a far smaller amount than PR, although many councils do not keep a record of the cost of the act.

Part of the Government commission’s report will focus on whether FoI is too much of a “burden” on public authorities.

Graham quoted research as showing that it is difficult to compare the cost of FoI with the savings made “as a result of behaviours being changed, things that don’t pass the blush test”.

He added: “The evidence that I see is that those authorities that can’t do Freedom of Information or Data Protection properly are very often those authorities that have those sorts of problems with children’s services and social.

"It’s all about good management. Well managed local authorities understand that accountability is part of what they’re there to do – it’s part of what makes them deliver services well.”

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