Government commission mulls charges for FoI requests, strengthening ministerial veto and more exemptions - Press Gazette

Government commission mulls charges for FoI requests, strengthening ministerial veto and more exemptions

Charges for Freedom of Information requests are being considered by an independent commission established by the Government to review the Freedom of Information Act.

The issue of fees will be examined by the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information as part of a wider look at the "burden" the act places on public authorities.

The commission today launched a public call for evidence after it was set up in July this year.

The review will also examine whether cabinet ministers should be allowed to veto the publication of sensitive material as they have done in the past.

The commission is being chaired by Lord Burns and includes former Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw, former Conservative leader Lord Howard of Lympne, Lord Carlile of Berriew and Dame Patricia Hodgson.

It is expected to publish its findings by the end of the year.

Lord Burns said: "Freedom of Information is an area of considerable public interest and we want to hear the views of as many people as possible, which is why we are announcing this public call for evidence.

"The commission is an independent body, with no pre-determined view, and is interested in gathering as much objective evidence as possible on the questions posed in the call for evidence."

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: "They are looking at a very wide range of potential restrictions to the act, making it harder to obtain internal discussions, new restrictions on access to cabinet material, possible restrictions on access to risk registers."

On the possibility of charging for FoI requests, Frankel said: "We would be very worried about that. For most people a single charge for a single request might not be a problem, except for people on low incomes.

"But the problem is that many people legitimately need to make more than a single request.

"It would make the FoI Act inaccessible for individual requesters and small and medium organisations as well as for freelance journalists."

News Media Association regulatory affairs advisor Lucy Gill said: "The Freedom of Information Act has done more than any other to help the free press and the public it serves to hold power to account. Every day newspapers run stories exposing waste, incompetence and cover-ups that would never have come to light but for the FOIA. These stories result in policies being changed for the better and action being taken to improve people’s lives.

"It is therefore disappointing that instead of looking at ways of making government more transparent, the Commission is instead considering a raft of measures that would weaken the Act and impede the public’s use of it.  Proposals such as strengthening the government veto, removing some types of information from FOI altogether and charging for requests are regressive and unnecessary. The Act already contains robust safeguards for sensitive information and it has revealed far more wasteful spending by public authorities than it has cost to administer.

"It is essential that all supporters of the FOIA make their voices heard at this time. That is why NMA will be asking its members in the national, regional and local press to show the Commission – and the Government – how they use the FOIA to benefit their communities and enhance the public good.” 

Author: Dominic Ponsford

Dominic Ponsford is the editor of Press Gazette