Labour deputy leader Tom Watson shares 'concerns' over FoI Commission - and calls for Act to be 'strengthened'

Labour wants the Freedom of Information Act to be “extended” rather than watered down, deputy leader Tom Watson has said.

Earlier this month, the Government launched the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information, which is mulling new charges for FoI requests and new controls to protect internal discussions conducted by local authorities and central government.

In response, the Society of Editors, backed by Press Gazette, launched the Hands Off FoI campaign.

In a letter to the Society of Editors, Watson (pictured right with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Reuters) said the Labour Party “shares some of your concerns about what the consultation could mean for the Act”. The same letter, seen by Press Gazette, is being sent to around 30 regional newspapers.

Watson wrote: “The Labour Party believes the Act has given the public, campaigners and the media a powerful tool with which to hold the Government to account.

"Without it, the death rates of individual cardiac surgeons would not have been published by the NHS, we would not have learned that the police used tasers on children and the existence of cracks in the nuclear power station at Hinckley would have stayed hidden.

"There are thousands of other examples of information being made publicly available only because the Act has been used effectively.

"We want to see the Act extended and strengthened in the interests of open, transparent and accountable Government.”

Watson also expressed concern over the Commission group set up by the Government, claiming the six people on the body “does not include anyone who has made an FoI request”.

He said: “We were also surprised to discover that journalists who attended a briefing about the Commission's work were told they couldn't report what they were told or disclose the identity of the person who briefed them.

"The Commission itself is not subject to FOI rules and its remit does not include an obligation to assess whether the FOI Act has been effective. We believe its terms of reference should be altered so that it also considers whether the Act has been a success.”

Watson added: "We also believe the Act should be extended so that the public can scrutinise far more closely the billions of pounds of taxpayers' money received by private companies running public sector contracts."

"My colleague Louise Haigh, Shadow Minister for Civil Service and Digital Reform, is the member of my team who is leading on this.

“We are in the process of setting up a working group that will make a series of recommendations to the Labour Party about how the Act could be improved. Its members will include senior journalists and campaigners.

“The Labour Party's response to the Government’s consultation will be informed by our conversations with the organisations that have engaged with the FoI regime most closely since the Act was introduced."

Sign petition telling Government: Don't weaken the Freedom of Information Act

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