Time is running out to vote on future of FoI

There is a school of thought that the more talk there is on a political issue, the less action will result. When it comes to Freedom of Information, that may well be true, but as the deadline for the third consultation in less than a year approaches, we shouldn’t forget that this latest deliberation is the first opportunity since 2000 to extend the Freedom of Information Act.

Until now, the Government’s efforts have all been directed at making it harder for people to use the law. Finally, in October 2007, Gordon Brown announced a public consultation on extending coverage, which will end on 1 Feburary.

Talk of bringing new bodies under the FoI remit is nothing new – in fact the former Lord Chancellor Charlie Falconer made repeated promises to do exactly this from 2004 onwards, but all his deadlines came and went with no new bodies added under Section 5 of the law. The issue was quietly dropped.

Then on 25 October last year, Gordon Brown announced a bold new vision for FoI. He scrapped previous plans to curtail the law and initiated the new consultation with a commitment to introduce changes by the end of the Parliamentary session in November 2008.

‘This is the first serious attempt to reverse the Government’s negative approach to FoI,’says Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. ‘This is an opportunity to get something done, so the press should have a serious think about those bodies which are not currently subject to the Act which they need information from.’

Only those bodies named in law are subject to it, so if a body isn’t named it can’t be held accountable to the public under FoI. Some omissions are surprising, such as Network Rail, which is wholly owned by the Government, and hence the public, yet is not covered under the Act. Other bodies not covered include City Academies, harbour authorities, regional development agencies, the Association of Chief Police Officers, water companies and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games. Many of these

bodies receive the majority of their funding from taxpayers (either directly or via other public bodies) and perform a public function, yet remain unaccountable under FoI.

‘Editors will have a whole list of organisations they want included,’says Bob Satchwell of the Society of Editors. ‘It’s a mystery why some of them were left off in the first place but the key element will be whether an organisation affects people’s lives and livelihoods, particularly where public safety is an issue.”

For the local press, some worthy targets for inclusion would be strategic partnerships, New Deal bodies and private finance initiatives (where the company is providing a public service such as running a school or hospital). Private prison contractors, asylum detention

centres and many voluntary organisations could also be included in relation to any public functions they perform.

The current consultation deals only with those bodies which can’t be added automatically under Section 4 of the Act and must instead be designated under Section 5. They can either be added by name or by class, but they must either perform a public function, and/or if they are a private contractor then they must be providing a service that the public authority is required to provide.

Bodies can be named individually (say, the Association of Chief Police Officers) or as a class (all those private contractors who perform safety inspections for a public body, for example).

‘It’s probably a one-off opportunity, so people ought to make a submission,’says Tim Gopsill at the National Union of Journalists. The NUJ wants to see the Press Complaints Commission added to the list, a move that is causing controversy among some in the media.

‘There are so many cases where the PCC foists inferior settlements on people,’says Gopsill. ‘We want the PCC to be more transparent, particularly about its processing of complaints. It posts highly selective statistics. There should be fair recourse for people who feel maligned by the press.”

Phil Booth, the director of the No2ID campaign, wants organisations processing large amounts of personal information as part of a public function held accountable under FoI. He cited the loss of three million records by Pearson Driving Assessments, an external contractor to the Driving Standards Agency, in Iowa.

‘We have no way of finding out how these records were sent over to the States. I can’t get that under the Data Protection Act or FoI as it stands. We need some recourse under UK law,’says Booth

The press played a major role in defeating the Government’s previous attempts to smother the FoI law, so we can only hope that concerted pressure to extend coverage will have a similarly positive effect.

The consultation paper and summary of questions are available from the Ministry of Justice website (see external links). Deadline for submissions is 1 February.

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