Press Gazette scored a significant breakthrough in its campaign to save the Freedom of Information Act this week as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Baroness Ashton, gave an assurance that new FoI rules would not be rushed through.
The Government has previously indicated that the Freedom of Information and Data Protection Regulations 2007 will be ‘laid down’on 19 March – just 11 days after the end of the public consultation.
The proposals seek to change the way FoI costs are calculated, thereby massively increasing the number of questions rejected for exceeding the cost limits (£600 for central Government and £450 elsewhere).
When quizzed by Press Gazette this week, Baroness Ashton said: ‘It will be for the business managers to tell me what date I’ve got and that will be in the public domain as soon as I know it. But the critical point from your point of view is that there is no curtailed moment when we are duty bound to have thought about the consultation and done it. ‘In other words, quite reasonably, you are saying to me: ‘Hang on, that’s only 11 days’. Speedy isn’t really the word – it would be quite impossible.’Campaign for Freedom of Information director Maurice Frankel said he and the other members of the Information Rights User Group (which also includes the Society of Editors) were told in December that 19 March was the timetable the Government was working to for passing the new regulations into law.
He said: ‘That was the timetable we were originally given with the clear indication that the Government was determined to press ahead at very great speed. Obviously it is preferable if they are looking at relaxing their approach to making these changes.’He added: ‘My view is that these restrictions would be extremely severe for journalists, campaigners and anyone taking serious interest in the work of a public authority.
‘If authorities actually use these new rules as they would be entitled to, I think requestors would instantly notice the change. Any penetrating requests would be very likely to be refused in future.’According to the Government’s own figures, an extra 17,000 FoI questions a year would be rejected as a result of the new regulations.
Press Gazette has been campaigning against the proposed changes for a month – and so far more than 800 journalists have backed the campaign by adding their name to our Don’t Kill FoI petition. They include scores of newspaper and broadcast editors.
Frankel said of the campaign: ‘I think Press Gazette has done an extremely good job in keeping this campaign as a high-profile issue in its pages for several weeks.
‘I have no doubt that it is being noticed by Government and it is helping ensure that people are aware these changes are being made.’To add your backing to Press Gazette’s petition, email your name, job title and organisation to firstname.lastname@example.org.