Information charges threaten spirit of Act

Despite delays and frustrations with the Freedom of Information Act, most journalists would judge its first 18 months a success.

Last week the Campaign for Freedom of Information produced a list of 500 stories that have been published thanks to the Act. It was a feature of this year's Press Gazette Regional Press Awards that many of the top reporting entries were stories obtained under the Act. Our Student Journalist of the Year enterprisingly used the Act to investigate the finances of a Vice Chancellor for a splash in her college paper.

With the Act beginning to bed down, journalists are getting to grips with how to make requests, and sharing their experience. Surely, now is the time for the Government to take a deep breath and congratulate itself for introducing the long promised legislation.

Instead there is an atmosphere of suspicion that the Government is looking at various ways to curb the scope of the Act. These are believed to include introducing charges and lowering the cost limit, which would lead to more requests for information being rejected.

The suspicions have been confirmed in a memo published in this week's Sunday Times, in which Constitutional Affairs Secretary Lord Falconer is proposing to start charging for FoI requests, to deter "serial requesters". Evidence from Ireland is that when a flat fee was imposed on FoI requests the number made by journalists fell by more than a half.

The introduction of fees was opposed last month by the Constitutional Affairs select committee which, in a report on the Act, saw "no need to change the fees regulations" and urged Falconer to conduct a public consultation before deciding any change. It is ironic that changes to the FoI Act, which was introduced to open up the Government to more scrutiny, are being proposed behind closed doors, without consultation and against the advice of MPs.

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