Centre of power slow to act on FoI requests

By David Rose

Guardian freedom of information specialist David Hencke has told MPs that the nearer reporters get to Tony Blair, the less information they get.

A watchdog committee of MPs called in Hencke on Tuesday night to hear first-hand how Whitehall was responding to reporters’ requests made under the Freedom of Information Act.

Hencke and Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for the Freedom of Information, admitted they were surprised by how much information was being released.

But Hencke told the Constitutional Affairs Committee, headed by Liberal Democrat MP Alan Beith, that different departments responded differently to journalists’ requests.

He said that while the Department for Culture, Media and Sport had been helpful in dealing with a request for information about casino operators, the Cabinet Office had said it was covered by "confidential advice to ministers".

Hencke said: "The nearer you get to the centre of power, the less keen they are in telling us, and the more delays there are."

He added that a year after submitting a request about the miners’ strike, he was still waiting for information.

Frankel warned MPs that the flow of information would be halved if Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, presses ahead with plans to change the threshold below which requests are free.

Currently, requests costing less than £600 for central government to research, and £450 for other public bodies, cost nothing.

Frankel said the Government was belatedly getting credit for the Freedom of Information Act and should allow things to settle down.

"We have got a functioning Freedom of Information Act and that was not guaranteed."

However, he expressed concern at the huge backlog of appeals awaiting a decision from the Information Commissioner.

The Constitutional Affairs Committee is reviewing the impact of the legislation after its first year of operation.

The Freedom of Information Act allows the public to request access to information held by more than 100,000 public bodies.

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