MPs urge ministers to scrap plans to ‘neuter’ Freedom of Information

A committee of MPs has urged ministers to scrap planned changes that many journalists fear would lead to many of their most important Freedom of Information requests being rejected.

In a report released today, the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee said the government should abandon what it called the 'unnecessary, unpopular and undesirable'reforms.

Under the Government proposals, it would become easier for public bodies to reach the threshold beyond which FOI request may be rejected on cost grounds. The plan would also allow public bodies to treat unrelated FOI requests from the same organsiation as a single request.

The committee found that the Government did not adequately balance the public right of access to information with the costs of FOI to public bodies before deciding to limit openness. It also criticized as 'insufficient'the analysis that the Government provided to justify its proposals.

The MPs also criticized the Governemnt for not taking into account that the most time-consuming requests are often those of the greatest public interst.

Citing evidence submitted by the Guardian, the committee agreed that the most complex and politically-sensitive requests are likely to be the most affected if the plan were to come into force.

The report also criticised the former Department for Constitutional Affairs, for failing to take into account the public benefits of FOI in its analysis.

'The focus of the DCA's work has been entirely on cost reduction, despite the absense of any evidence that such measures were necessary,'the report says.

The Liberal Democrat chairman of the committee, Alan Beith, said: 'The Freedom of Information Act works. It enhances the rights of the public. Neither the Government nor MPs should be seeking to limit its effectiveness, and there is no evidence here to support either the Government's proposals on fees or the Bill. I am hopeful that both will now be dropped."

The director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, Maurice Frankel, welcomed the committee's findings.

Frankel said: 'The government has been trying to sabotage the Freedom of Information Act by restricting the right of access and supporting David Maclean's bill to exempt Parliament. Gordon Brown should kill off both sets of malodorous proposals. He should tell ministers to stop gnashing their teeth and demonstrate that they are committed to and proud of their legislation."

The Newspaper Society has saidid the proposals the would effectively 'neuter'the Freedom of Information law, which has obeen in force since January 2005.

More than 1,100 journalists signed a Press Gazette petition against the proposals earlier this year.

Last week, the Government completed a second round of consultations on its proposals, known as the draft Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit & Fees) Regulations. It received 250 responses, known to include several from media organisations opposed to the plans.

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