Gove plans to 'revisit' Freedom of Information Act could lead to 'filleting' of law

Freedom of Informaton experts fear government plans to "revisit' the FoI Act will attack journalists' right to access public information.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove announced in the Commons last week that he intends to review the Act and ensure that confidential advice given to ministers by civil servants is protected from publication.   

The Financial Times reported that Gove is also considering plans to give government officials “thinking time” when deciding whether Freedom of Information requests fall under spending limits.

This would mirror plans brought by Tony Blair to seriously water down FoI which were scrapped by prime minister Gordon Brown in 2007, following a Press Gazette campaign.

Another proposal, also noted by the Financial Times, involves strengthening the right of ministers to veto the publication of official documents, as they failed to do with the recent release of Prince Charles’ "black spider" letters.  

Tom Felle, acting director of interactive and newspaper journalism at City University, said the proposals amount to a “filleting” of the Act.

“Any changes to the legislation are not going to be good for journalists. There is evidence from around the world that the more successful Freedom of Information laws are for journalists then the more governments seek to roll them back.

“For example, the ministerial veto has only one use – to stop the release of public information that the public have an entitlement to see, simply because the government of the day decides it wants publication to be stopped.

“There is no deeply thought-out public interest reason, not at all, it is simply whatever the government decides is the reason that is the reason.”

Media law consultant David Banks said: "The proposed changes highlight the flaws that have existed in the FoI Act from the start, namely that they often required someone to consider whether an exemption applied, and there was always the loophole to reject on cost grounds.

"Once that cost loophole was built into the legislation, it was always going to be possible for future governments to exploit it to weaken FoI.

"Other countries have much more effective FoI legislation with far fewer exemptions, and fewer, or no opportunities for requests to be refused on the grounds of cost.

"But despite its weaknesses FoI has been used very effectively by journalists and other campaigners to shine a light on the actions of government. Which is precisely why the current administration is doing its best to shut it down."

Matthew Davis, editor of Freedom of Information blog DataNews Ltd, said the idea of granting ‘thinking time’ to government officials is absurd.

“It is just a complete non-starter. How do you calculate how long it’s going to take someone to work something out?”

The director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, Maurice Frankel, said the proposed changes amount to “fairly serious attacks” on the Act.

“The cost limit refusal does not take any account of the public interest. This may allow very important requests to be turned down without an authority having to show that there is anything unreasonable about the requests in the circumstances.”

A government spokesperson said: "Since 2010, the Government has been more transparent than ever. Spending data and contracts which were previously kept hidden are now routinely published.

"Of course we keep the FOI process under constant review. For example, as the Prime Minister has said, we may want to look specifically at strengthening the legislation around the ministerial veto."



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