Journalists unite against plans to restrict FoI use

Lord Falconer has been accused of trying to scupper the Freedom of Information Act for journalists with a series of proposed rule changes announced this week.

Journalists have been urged to unite to fight against the proposals, announced by the Constitutional Affairs Secretary on Monday, amid fears they would limit news organisations to a small handful of requests per year and would make it easier for officials to turn away legitimate, public interest requests.

The main effect of the proposed changes would be that far more requests by journalists would be rejected because they would exceed the existing fee limits.

A report by consultants Frontier Economics, commissioned by the Department for Constitutional Affairs, indicated that limiting requests from journalists and other "serial requesters" would be an effective way to reduce the £36 million annual cost of implementing FoI.

Guardian FoI specialist Rob Evans said: "This is a deliberate attempt by the Government to stop reporters using the act to find out what ministers and officials are up to. Lord Falconer hails the act as ‘a significant success', yet he is now trying to sabotage it.

"The media needs to campaign together to stop these plans," Evans added.

The report details how journalists are among the most costly users of the FoI legislation.

It states: "Requests from journalists tend to be more complex and consequently more expensive. They account for around 10 per cent of initial FoI requests made to central government and 20 per cent of the costs of officials' time in dealing with the requests."

Journalists' requests cost £3.9m per year across all levels of Government, the report estimated.

In June, the Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee urged the Government not to make any changes to the established fees regime. But Falconer's department rejected the recommendations and announced that it would press ahead with changes.

The committee's Liberal Democrat chairman, Alan Beith MP, told Press Gazette: "Our recommendation was that there should not have been any change, and the Government has said that there will not be a flat-rate fee — which is good — but then there's the sting in the tail.

"This could block really important requests by preventing the release of information on matters of real public importance. It flies in the face of creating a culture of openness in government."

The first key change proposed by Falconer is to allow civil servants to include more activities when assessing the time taken to process a request.

Currently, central Government departments may reject a request if it costs more than £600 to process. Other bodies, including local councils, may reject requests costing more than £450.

The changes would allow officials to include the time taken to read through documents before release, time taken considering which information to release, and time consulting when assessing their workload.

Sunday Times reporter Jonathan Ungoed-Thomas said the change would lead to many of his paper's requests being rejected.

"In response to a lot of our requests — 60 to 70 per cent — they come back and tell us that they are considering a public interest test, and that clearly takes a long time," he said.

Journalist Heather Brooke, the author of FoI handbook Your Right To Know, agreed: "It's going to prohibit all but the most superficial and frivolous requests — which are precisely the ones that the Government has complained about in the past. Anything of any substance, if you're trying to conduct any sort of serious investigation, as a journalist or campaigner, will immediately be ruled out on cost grounds."

The second key change aims to discourage "serial requesters".

The report singled out several news organisations as falling into this category. Requests from the BBC alone cost between £300,000 and £1 million per year, and requests from The Guardian cost between £250,000 and £350,000.

The proposed rule change would allow public bodies to treat multiple, unrelated requests coming from the same organisation as one request when assessing the processing cost.

A DCA spokeswoman said the proposed change would mean an entire news organisation such as the BBC could be treated as a single requester.

She said: "In practice, a requester to central Government would get 3.5 days worth of request time every three months."

Head of the BBC FoI unit Martin Rosenbaum said: "It would clearly dramatically curtail the use of Freedom of Information by BBC journalists to dig out stories that we think ought to be in the public domain.

"Suppose I put in a request to the Ministry of Defence and it takes close to £600 worth of time — nobody else in the BBC is going to be able to submit any request to the MoD about anything for the next three months."

Because local councils have a lower cost barrier, the effects of the changes could hit regional news organisations hardest.

Paul Francis, political editor at the Kent Messenger group said: "If they are going to [combine] different requests from the same media organisation, that's clearly a cause for concern. It's not uncommon for specialist reporters to pursue their own FoI requests, which are quite unrelated to what a colleague might be trying to pursue."

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said he would express journalists' concerns next week when he meets Baroness Ashton, the minister responsible for the FoI Act, at a meeting of the FoI Users Group.

"If the Government really favoured freedom of information, they would abolish all charges," said Satchwell.

"It is a legitimate use of public time and money to give the public what, after all, is their information."

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