Minister blames journalists' 'unfocused' questions for FOI curbs

A minister has stoked up the row over new Freedom of Information curbs by blaming journalists for asking too many wide-ranging "unfocused" questions.

Constitutional Affairs minister Vera Baird levied the charge when rejecting allegations that the Government was less concerned about saving money than by restricting the flow of information.

"The public sector is right to expect top rate research skills from those whose jobs depend on them," she told MPs.

"The careers of journalists, professional campaigners and researchers are based on being able to ask clear, unambiguous and precise questions, but they do not seem to do it that often in freedom of information territory.

"I shall not give specific examples, but a reasonable analogy is a question about all the information since 1066 about the use of the wheel, what the inquirer — the professional journalist — is really driving at is how many grants were given to car manufacturers in certain years.

"That sort of open-ended and unfocused inquiry is the problem."

MPs from all parties joined ranks in a Commons debate to urge the Government to think again about allowing government departments, councils and other bodies to take account of the time taken to read, and consult, on FoI requests as well as producing answers, in calculating costs.

Requests can be rejected if they exceed the cost limits (£600 for central Government and £450 elsewhere).

Islyn Labour MP Don Touhig also warned journalists could be caught by a proposal to allow public bodies to take account of the volume of requests made by an applicant in the past and whether that applicant had been "uncooperative or disruptive".

He told the minister: "That measure appears to be a direct invitation to authorities to discriminate against applicants who have not shown sufficient deference.

"The applicant who regularly appeals against refusals can be made to pay a price for doing so. A campaigning newspaper like the South Wales Argus might criticise the local council's handling of its freedom of information requests, or use the information it has got under the Act to express disapproval of a council policy. It may be punished for its temerity by being refused further information on the grounds that it has been uncooperative or disruptive."

Peter Kilfoyle, Labour MP for Liverpool Walton, said the editors of the Liverpool Echo and Daily Post had expressed concern about the effects on investigative journalists.

"They do a good job in holding local bodies to account. The proposed measure will inhibit them from doing the job."

Richard Shephard, Tory MP for Aldridge-Brownhills, praised the Express and Star and the Yorkshire Post for their use of the Act , a view echoed by Harrogate Liberal Democrat MP Phil Willis. who said the Yorkshire Post had disclosed that police authorities had squandered huge expenses – £28,000 for a shower for the chief constable.

Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) said the Westmorland Gazette had discovered that new speed cameras had led to a 753 per cent increase in the number of speeding tickets.

Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker (Lewes) said a proposal to allow public bodies to aggregate requests from one applicant would catch the BBC.

"If one BBC journalist were to submit a request that took the organisation to the limit the BBC would be prevented from putting in further requests for three months."

Henry Bellingham, Tory MP for North-West Norfolk, said the Cambridge Evening News had run various campaigns and disclosed that violence and intimidation had become part of the daily life for staff at Addenbrooke's hospital.

"If the newspaper had been restricted to one request a month many of those stories would never have been brought to the attention of the public."

Ms Baird said the Government would take account of representations before deciding whether to proceed with the regulations, but she warned: "A tiny minority of requests impose disproportionate burdens on the Government, some of which frankly take weeks to deal with."

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