Next threat to freedom of information 'just around the corner'

Campaign for Freedom of Information facing closure threat

Freedom of Information threat

Freedom of Information has been under “constant attack” from policymakers since the legislation was passed 21 years ago according to the Campaign for Freedom of Information which is facing its own existential threat.

The last major threat in 2015, when the Government’s Independent Commission of Freedom of Information looked at imposing fees and greater exemptions for public authorities, saw Press Gazette back the (ultimately successful) Hands Off FoI campaign.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, told Press Gazette: “That threat was seen off but I have no doubt there’s going to be another one just around the corner, it’s just the way it is.”

Frankel said Boris Johnson’s government is “trying it on in various ways”, adding: “FoI needs all the help and all the support and all the campaigners that it can get because by definition an effective FoI Act is a thorn in the side of government and government does not like it.

“If government likes FoI it’s probably a sign that the legislation is not very good. So I don’t think we can afford to lose anyone pressing for FoI.”

However, Frankel’s Campaign for Freedom of Information, which was set up in 1984 and played a major part in securing the 2000 Act, is at risk of closure.

The campaign, which has just two full-time staff and one part-time, had two grants that came up for renewal in recent months and both were lost as the funders chose to prioritise other issues under current pressures.

It is now appealing to crowdfund £50,000 to give it “breathing space to try and restore some of the lost funding from other sources”, Frankel said.

Frankel said people had suggested in 2000 when the Act was passed that the group would no longer be needed but that he felt this would be “rash”.

“That was obviously right because we’ve had a series of attacks and attempts to undermine freedom of information from 18 months after it was passed,” he said.

‘No government’ is enthusiastic about FoI

Frankel said the Act became essential for anyone – whether journalists, campaigners or ordinary people – trying to bring about change or ensure certain standards in, for example, environment and safety legislation.

But the first attack came just 18 months after Tony Blair’s government passed the FoI Act. Blair later described himself as a “naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop”.

However, asked how Johnson’s government compares to the others of the past 20 years, Frankel said they “all feel worse than their predecessors when you’re dealing with them”.

[Read more: Government obfuscation has become ‘art form’ – MPs and journalists say Freedom of Information not working]

He said: “The problem is no government is really enthusiastic about the right of access which allows people to uncover things that they would prefer weren’t uncovered. This government is trying it on in various ways and you can see the need to hold it to account in every possible way… Nothing about this government suggests that we should be relaxed about leaving it to them to get on with it the way they would prefer to do it.”

‘View of FoI as a problem’

Part of the problem, Frankel said, is that ministers are only shown FoI requests likely to cause problems. They, therefore “get a view of FOI as a problem for them and the government in general”.

“Ministers and public authorities have a view of FOI as something which causes them trouble for no benefit as far as they can see,” he went on.

“They’re not very sensitive towards appreciating the benefit of it, but they’re very sensitive towards the challenge it presents for them in doing what they probably think they need to do but which other people don’t think they need to do.”

The Campaign on Freedom of Information trains journalists and other parties in effective use of FoI, monitors its usage, and scrutinises new laws that pose a threat to the right to know.

It warns that there are currently three bills putting this principle at risk:

  1. The Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill, which will set up a new research funding body to promote “high risk, high reward” research but would be exempt from FoI
  2. The Health and Care Bill, which will set up a new Health Service Safety Investigations Body investigating serious patient safety incidents but prohibit the disclosure of any information not published in formal reports
  3. The Environment Bill, an early version of which prohibited disclosure
    of information about the work of the proposed Office for Environmental Protection investigating potential breaches of environmental law. It appears DEFRA has now accepted this exemption went too far, but the change of heart has not yet been reflected in the wording of the legislation

In recent years campaigners and peers have called for the FoI Act to be extended to cover public sector contractors.

[Read more: ‘Urgent need’ to extend FOI Act to private contractors working for public bodies, say peers]

Concerns across the industry are such that the editors of the Guardian, Financial Times, Times, Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mirror joined together earlier this year in a rare show of unity urging the Government to look at reform to protect FoI rights.

In July the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee launched an inquiry into the Cabinet Office’s handling of FoI requests after a judge criticised its Clearing House for a “profound lack of transparency about the operation”.

Investigative website Open Democracy uncovered details of the secretive Clearing House, including allegations it added names of BBC, Guardian, Times and Open Democracy journalists to a blacklist and unlawfully screened requests.

The UK’s incoming Information Commissioner, John Edwards, suggested last month he would back requesters being charged for making certain types of FoI requests.

Pandemic’s ‘big effect’ on FoI

Frankel told Press Gazette there had not been enough enforcement from the Information Commissioner’s Office, leading to the system being less effective as it is.

He said that FoI staff were well trained before the Act came into effect in the belief that they would be severely penalised by the ICO if they were not positive and proactive about releasing information.

“What’s happened since then is the well-trained people have moved on,” Frankel said. “They have been replaced with people who have not been trained and not absorbed what was the thrust of the legislation at the time.

“The second thing is they have discovered that the regulator does not put them under the substantial pressure they expected to be under and the third thing is that they’ve discovered that the message from the top is not to complain about staff who don’t deal with FOI in the right spirit, but to complain about staff who do deal with FOI in the right spirit…”

He added that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a “big effect” on the system by adding to delays. The ICO said at the start of the first lockdown that authorities would not be penalised if they transferred resources away from FoI to deal with the pandemic itself.

“Quite a big backlog built up in ICO and slowed down the whole system,” Frankel said. “The system was slow anyway.”

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