Falconer pledges not to put a charge on information

A major hurdle which had been expected to stop journalists using new freedom of information powers has been lifted.

Attorney general Lord Falconer told the Society of Editors’ annual
conference that “in the vast majority of cases” no charge will be made
for requests made under the new Freedom of Information Act.

He said: “The public has a right to greater openness from public
authorities, and it’s a right to know that should be accessible to all.
No individual should be priced out of the right to know.”

Falconer said no charge will be made for information which costs
public bodies less than £450 to produce and which costs central
government less than £600 to produce.

He hit back at criticism that the Act, which comes into force on
January 1, will be toothless because of the number of exempt categories
and the ministerial over-ride.

He said: “Any objective comparison with other countries’ FOI regimes will find that our act compares very favourably.

“The Act introduces a presumption that public bodies should release
information to the public unless there is a very good reason for not
doing so.

There is no real argument that exemptions protecting crucial
information in areas such as defence, foreign affairs and national
security constitute just such a good case.”

He revealed that more than 100,000 public authorities are subject to
the terms of the act and said it was “a bold and determined response to
generations of secrecy”.

He said: “The Freedom of Information Act takes the decision on
disclosure away from the executive- save in the handful of cases where
the ministerial override is involved – and places it in the hands of
independent officials or bodies, or the courts.”

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, welcomed Falconer’s statement.

He said: “This is a very important decision that the government has
come to. This is a very positive sign for freedom of information.”

Frankel urged journalists to take their new powers seriously and
said: “There is a duty on public authorities to advise and assist
people who have made requests. Any official who is obstructive is
breaching the law.”

The man charged with enforcing the Freedom of Information Act,
Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, was another speaker at the
Society of Editors Conference.

He said: “People talk about the 23 exceptions, but 16 out of the 23
are qualified. That means they don’t apply if the public interest in
disclosure outweighs the public interest in exception.

And inside the 23 there is no exception for embarrassment.”

By Dominic Ponsford

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