Just five days left to save FoI

Press Gazette will tell the Government next week that opposition to its proposed new Freedom of Information fee regime is vehement among the thousands of journalists who read both our magazine and website.

More than 1,200 have backed our Don't Kill FoI campaign, including more than 100 of the most powerful newspaper, magazine and broadcast editors in the country.

Groups backing the campaign so far include the Society of Editors, the National Union of Journalists, the Newspaper Society, the Periodical Publishers Association and the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

Society of Editors chairman Bob Satchwell urged journalists to keep pressure on the Government until the consultation period on the Freedom of Information and Data Protection Regulations ends next Thursday, 8 March, by making their own submissions to the Department of Constitutional Affairs.

He said: "The most important thing is to keep saying over and over again that these changes would be bad news because they are based on a cost analysis rather than a cost-benefit analysis of FoI.

"The whole cost of FoI is £35 million which is absolutely tiny in terms of the whole Government budget."

Satchwell, who two weeks ago met Information Minister Baroness Ashton, said he believes there is "every chance" the Government will respond to the consultation by backing off from changing FoI.

He said: "It would be absolutely ridiculous for them to carry on down this road — it would fly in the face of common sense and of all the comments they are receiving."

According to a Government-commissioned review by Frontier Economics, the new regulations will lead to an extra 17,000 requests a year being turned down on cost grounds alone — irrespective of the public interest. The changes work by allowing public authorities to include more "thinking time" and to add up different requests from the same organisation when deciding whether a request should be rejected out of hand for exceeding the cost limit of £600 for central Government and £450 for other public authorities.

According to the Government, the total cost saving from the proposed changes would be around £10 million a year. But according to new analysis by the charity Public Concern at Work, revealed by Press Gazette last week, the cost of implementing the new regulations is likely to wipe out any savings.

Press Gazette will argue in our submission to the Government that it should follow the recommendation of Parliament's Constitutional Affairs Committee last summer and leave the current FoI regime alone.

We will suggest that if the regulations must be altered, because of the inconvenience caused by a small number of "serial requestors" who are placing an unnecessary burden on public officials' time, then perhaps the Government should instead look at the United States' FoI rules. There, journalists and academic requestors are given special status exempting them from fees levied on commercial researchers.

Press Gazette will also be presenting the Government with our FoI campaign coverage over the past two months, which runs to more than a dozen pages and details the massive opposition in the journalistic community.

Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information Maurice Frankel said: "I think there has been overwhelming opposition from the press and from the wider FoI user community.

I know that privately, some of the public authorities have voiced concern about these proposals.

"I think the Government must be asking itself, is it worth it to make such a large cut in the public's rights in return for a relatively modest saving and amid such a lot of suspicion and criticism from MPs, users of the legislation and the press.

"If they do introduce the proposals it is not as if they are going to have a brief period of pain and then think it's over, because every time someone is refused an answer all these issues are going to be reignited."

Frankel added that he believed that Press Gazette's FoI campaign over the past two months has played an important role in highlighting the issue and said: "I think it has been first class and an absolute model of a campaign."

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