The deadline for submissions to the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information is midnight tonight (20 November).
Press Gazette has submitted this letter, as well as the 41,000 signatures gathered so far to our petition and 400 pages detailing the reasons peoplee have given for backing the campaign. We will be keeping the petition, which is addressed to minister Matthew Hancock, open until the issue has been resolved.
Dear members of the Independent Commission on Freedom Information,
I am writing as the editor of UK journalism news website Press Gazette in response to your consultation on changing the Freedom of Information Act.
The act as it stands is far from perfect. In fact, it would benefit from being strengthened.
For more than a year we have asked each of the UK's police forces for information about their use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to secretly view the call records of journalists in order to identify their confidential sources.
We would argue that the release of this sort of information is firmly in the public interest.
Yet every force has hidden behind a variety of exemptions under the act to refuse every single request we have made.
Our requests have been refused on various grounds under the act including:
- 12.1 – costs
- 14.1 – vexatious
- 23.5 – concerning security bodies
- 24.2 – national security
- 30.3 – investigations
- 31.3 – law enforcement
- 40.5 – personal information
We would argue that the widespread police use of RIPA to collect the phone records of law-abiding journalists and their legal sources is a matter of clear public interest which should be subject to disclosure under FoI. This is not the place for a detailed discussion of the issues around this particular case, but suffice to say that the act as it stands has very many ways for public authorities to avoid disclosing information.
Press Gazette, and the readers we represent, is extremely concerned about moves to further weaken the act for requestors.
Notwithstanding our frustrations with FoI, it is a piece of legislation which has greatly improved public transparency.
Fees for FoI requests
On the detail of your consultation, I would like to emphasise that any fees for FoI requests would greatly reduce Press Gazette’s ability to use the act. We simply do not have any budget for FoI requests and would be unlikely to be granted one in the future.
Many of our FoI requests involve surveys of every local authority, or every police force. We have used this method to collect details of public expenditure on PR and communications. Any fees would make it impossible for us to make such use of the act in future. I suspect many other small business and specialist news titles would also fall in the same category.
The broad thrust of your consultation
Press Gazette launched a petition on 21 October 2015 as part of the Hands Off FoI campaign launched by the Society of Editors.
The wording of this petition responds directly to the terms of your consultation.
The Freedom of Information Act established the broad principle that public bodies must release information if the public interest in doing so outweighs the public interest in it remaining secret.
We, the undersigned, urge the Government not to do anything which would detract from that principle.
In particular we urge you:
- to ensure that the Act continues to allow for the release of internal discussions at local and central government level when there is a public interest in doing so
- not to seek to create any new veto powers over the release of information
- not to introduce charges for Freedom of Information Act requests or appeals.
Any charges could dramatically undermine the ability of requesters, including regional press journalists and freelances in particular, to use the Act to hold authorities to account.
Investigative journalism is time-consuming, expensive and sometimes difficult to justify for news organisations which are under financial pressure. It needs to be nurtured and encouraged, for the benefit of society and democracy, not subject to Freedom of Information charges which would effectively be a tax on journalism.
At time of writing, more than 41,000 people have signed this petition. Their names, and reasons for signing, are attached to this submission. The latter runs to more than 400 pages. I hope you can take the time to look at these responses from journalists, and members of the public, all over Britain. They provide ample evidence of the extent to which people care passionately about having access to public information.
Signatories range from leading journalists like Robert Peston, the new ITV political editor, who said: “The health of a democracy is directly related to our ability to hold its institutions to account, which in turn requires full and timely disclosure of their conduct and policies.”
To members of the public like Zoe Syson from Farmfield, who said: “As a parent of a child with Autism I nearly used the FOI Act to support my child's educational placement and I know many parents in a similar position have and found it very valuable when gathering evidence to support cases.”
In nearly ten years of editing Press Gazette I have never known an issue to so galvanise both our readers and members of the public. It is completely unprecedented for a petition launched by us to gather such a high level of support.
Please do not recommend any further curbs on peoples' right to obtain information from public authorities.