Dear PM – Don’t weaken our Freedom of Information Act!

38 Degrees are one of 140 newspapers, campaign groups and others who have written to the Prime Minister to share our massive concerns at the government’s approach to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

You can read the full letter here.

Or see below for summary of the main points.

Hamstrung from the get go: the Commission on Freedom of Information are only looking at weakening, not improving, the act. 

The letter states: its terms of reference make clear that ‘its purpose is to consider new restrictions to the Act’ and that there is no indication that it is expected to consider how the right of access might need to be improved.

The Commission is stacked with FOI critics

The Commission’s 5 members include two former home secretaries, a former permanent secretary and the chair of a body subject to the FOI Act. A government perspective on the Act’s operation ‘will be well represented on the Commission itself’ the letter says.

The letter points out that one of the Commission’s members, former Home Secretary Jack Straw, ‘has repeatedly maintained that the Act provides too great a level of disclosure’. He has called for information about government policy formulation to be automatically withheld, regardless of any public interest in disclosure; criticised the Supreme Court for ‘exceeding its powers’ by overturning the ministerial veto in the Prince Charles correspondence case; called for charges to be introduced for FOI requests and said it should be significantly easier to refuse requests on cost grounds. Mr Straw’s publicly expressed views cover all the main areas within the Commission’s terms of reference. The Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, publicly commended Mr Straw’s views in the Commons, shortly before the Commission was appointed – reinforcing concerns about the government’s intentions towards the Act.

Another Commission member is Dame Patricia Hodgson, Ofcom’s chair. In 2012 Ofcom stated that ‘there is no doubt’ that the FOI Act had had a ‘chilling effect’, discouraging the proper recording of information by public authorities. The letter points out that deciding whether there has been a ‘chilling effect’ is likely to be one of the Commission’s priorities. Ofcom has also called for it to be made easier for authorities to refuse requests on cost grounds.

The letter says:

“An independent Commission is expected to reach its views based on the evidence presented to it rather than the pre-existing views of its members. Indeed, in appointing members to such a body we would expect the government to expressly avoid those who appear to have already reached and expressed firm views. It has done the opposite. The government does not appear to intend the Commission to carry out an independent and open minded inquiry. Such a review cannot provide a proper basis for significant changes to the FOI Act.”

The government want to charge us for our right to know

The letter also expresses concern at government proposals to introduce fees for tribunal appeals against the Information Commissioner’s FOI decisions. These are currently free of charge. Government proposals would require requesters to pay £100 for an appeal based on written submissions and £600 for one involving an oral hearing. The letter says the introduction of fees for Employment Tribunal appeals has led to a drastic decrease in the number of cases brought and says a similar effect on the number of FOI appeals is likely. “Requesters often seek information about matters of public concern, so deterring them from appealing will deny the public information of wider public interest” the letter adds. It adds that the new fees are “unlikely to discourage public authorities from challenging pro-disclosure decisions, so the move will lead to an inequality of arms between requesters and authorities”.

Who’s the 140?

The letter was signed by media bodies including: Archant, Belfast Telegraph, BSkyB, CN Group Limited, Computer Weekly, Coventry Telegraph, Daily Mail, Evening Standard, Exaro, Guardian News & Media Limited, i, Independent, Independent on Sunday, Johnston Press Editorial Board, KM Group, Liverpool Echo, Loughborough and Shepshed Echo, Mail on Sunday, Metro, National Union of Journalists, Newbury Weekly News, News Media Association, Newsquest, Nursing Standard, NWN Media, Oxford Mail & The Oxford Times, Press Association, Press Gazette, Private Eye, Pulse, Society of Editors, South Wales Argus, Southern Daily Echo, Southport Visitor, Sun, Sunday Life, The Sunday Times, Telegraph Media Group, The Irish News, The Sunday Post, The Times, Trinity Mirror, Trinity Mirror Regionals and Welfare Weekly.

Campaign groups and others signing the letter include: Act Now Training, Action on Smoking and Health, Against Violence and Abuse, Animal Aid, Archives and Records Association (UK and Ireland), ARTICLE 19, Article 39, Big Brother Watch, British Deaf Association, British Humanist Association, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, Burma Campaign UK, Campaign Against Arms Trade, Campaign for Better Transport, Campaign for National Parks, Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, Centre for Archive Studies (University of Liverpool), Centre for Public Scrutiny, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, Children England, Children’s Rights Alliance for England, Community Reinvest, CORE, Corporate Watch, Corruption Watch, Cruelty Free International, CTC the national cycling charity, Debt Resistance UK, Deighton Pierce Glynn, Democratic Audit, Disabled People Against Cuts, Down’s Syndrome Association, Drone Wars UK, English PEN, Equality and Diversity Forum, Finance Uncovered, Friends of the Earth, Friends, Families and Travellers, Gender Identity Research & Education Society, Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, Global Witness, Greenpeace, Hacked Off, Inclusion London, Index on Censorship, INQUEST, Involve, Jubilee Debt Campaign, Labour Campaign for Human Rights, Law Centres Network, Leigh Day, Liberty, London Mining Network, LUSH, medConfidential, Migrants’ Rights Network, Move Your Money UK, mySociety, NAT (National AIDS Trust), National Commission on Forced Marriage, Odysseus Trust, Open Data Manchester, Open Knowledge, Open Rights Group, OpenCorporates, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation, Prisoners’ Advice Service, Privacy International, Public Concern at Work, Public Interest Research Centre, Public Law Project, Race on the Agenda, Renewable Energy Foundation, Reprieve, Republic, Request Initiative, Rights Watch (UK), RoadPeace, Salmon & Trout Conservation (UK), Sheila McKechnie Foundation, South Northants Action Group, Spinwatch, Stop HS2, TaxPayers’ Alliance, The Corner House, Transform Justice, Transparency International UK, Trust for London, UNISON, Unite the Union, Unlock Democracy, War on Want, We Own It, WhatDoTheyKnow, Women’s Resource Centre, WWF-UK, Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, 38 Degrees and 4in10 Campaign.