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  1. Media Law
October 30, 2013updated 01 Nov 2013 5:37pm

Media and campaign groups urge David Cameron not to impose ‘severe’ new restrictions on Freedom of Information Act

By Ilse Bruijn

Prime Minister David Cameron was today urged to drop proposed changes to the Freedom of Information Act, in a letter sent to him by newspapers, campaign groups and charities. 

Press Gazette, the Independent and London Evening Standard, the Daily Mail, the Guardian, and the Society of Editors were amongst the many that signed the appeal, coordinated by the Campaign for Freedom of Information. 

The Government is reviving proposals to impose a drastic curb on the number of FoI requests which public authorities have answer by imposing  new cost limits.

This is a rival of proposals first put forward by the Blair government in 2006 and then thrown out by Gordon Brown after he became Prime Minister in 2007 after a campaign which was strongly backed by Press Gazette.

Currently FoI requests can be refused if the cost of finding the information exceeds £600 for central government and £450 for lother authorities. Under the changes  time spent considering a request and redacting information could be added to these cost limits.

According to the Campaign for Freedom of Information: "At present, it is often possible to overcome a cost refusal by narrowing a request’s scope, so that it applies to fewer records. But this will not help if the problem is  caused not by the number of records but by the complexity of the issue involved."

The Government is also proposing to limit groups or individuals from making too many requests where they become too "burdensome". This is another measure which could hit journalists hard.

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Today's protest letter coincides with an international summit on government transparency being held in London on 31 October and 1 November as part of the Open Government Partnership, which is co-chaired by the UK and involves governments and civil society organisations from more than 60 countries.

The Government first announced the proposal to impose new curbs on the FoI act in November 2012.

Today's letter is backed by 76 organisations and says: “You have previously stated your intention to make the UK the most open and transparent government in the world. We find it difficult to reconcile your ambition that the UK should be the world leader in openness with the government’s proposals to restrict the FOI Act, which is a critical element of the UK’s openness arrangements.

“We hope that the government will mark that commitment by announcing that it will not be bringing forward proposals to restrict the Act.”

In an Early Day Motion 77 MPs called upon the government to drop the new FoI proposals.

Here is the letter in full:

Dear Prime Minister,

Almost exactly a year ago the government announced a series of potential proposals to make it easier for public authorities to refuse freedom of information (FOI) requests on cost grounds.
The stated intention was to focus on requests causing ‘disproportionate burdens’ as a result of ‘industrial use’ of the FOI Act.
But the proposals would restrict access by all users, including those making occasional requests of modest scope. They include plans to reduce the limit at which FOI requests can be refused on cost grounds and to allow more activities to be taken into account when calculating whether this limit has been reached – including the time authorities spend considering whether to release information. 
Many requests of substantial public interest would be refused under these proposals regardless of the benefits of disclosure. They would have a severe effect on the operation of the FOI Act.
This week the UK chairs the international Open Government Partnership (OGP) summit in London to be attended by government and civil society representatives from some 60 countries. In this context, you have previously stated your intention to make the UK “the most open and transparent government in the world”.
We find it difficult to reconcile your ambition that the UK should be the world leader in openness with the government’s proposals to restrict the FOI Act, which is a critical element of the UK’s openness arrangements.
Government Response to the Justice Committee’s Report: Post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, November 2012. We hope that the government will mark that commitment by announcing that it will not be bringing forward proposals to restrict the Act.
Yours sincerely,
Peter Walsh
Chief Executive
Action against Medical Accidents
Roger Wicks
Director of Policy and Campaigns
Action on Hearing Loss
Davina James-Hanman
Against Violence & Abuse
Andrew Tyler
Animal Aid
David Banisar
Senior Legal Counsel
Article 19
Nick Pickles
Big Brother Watch
Pavan Dhaliwal
Head of Public Affairs
British Humanist Association
Stephen Bowen
British Institute of Human Rights
Nasreen Rehman
British Muslims for Secular Democracy
Gerry Morrissey
General Secretary
Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union
Jo Harvey Barringer
Chair of Trustees
Broken Rainbow UK
Michelle Thew
Chief Executive Officer
Ann Feltham
Parliamentary Co-ordinator
Campaign Against Arms Trade
Stephen Joseph
Chief Executive
Campaign for Better Transport
Maurice Frankel
Campaign for Freedom of Information
Barry White
National Organiser
Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom
Peter Newell
Children are unbeatable! Alliance
Compact Voice
Marilyn Croser
Corporate Responsibility Coalition
Dr Michele Lamb
Crucible Centre for Human Rights Research
Charles Garside
Assistant Editor
Daily Mail
Anthony Zacharzewski
Chief Executive
Democratic Society
Leander Neckles
Board Member
Heather Brooke FOI campaigner
Gita Parihar
Head of Legal
Friends of the Earth
Chris Whitwell
Friends, Families and Travellers Community Base
Will Moy
Full Fact
Bernard Reed
Gender Identity Research and Education Society
Jan Thompson
Managing Editor
Guardian News & Media
Henrietta Doyle
Policy Officer
Inclusion London
Andy Whitmore
Indigenous Peoples Links
Jenny Hirst
Insulin Dependent Diabetes Trust
Anne Thurston
International Records Management Trust
Simon Burall
Jonathan Stevenson
Campaigns and Communications Officer
Jubilee Debt Campaign
Ratna Lachman
JUST West Yorkshire
Julie Bishop
Law Centres Network
Michael Cross
News Editor
Law Society Gazette
Joe Duckworth
Chief Executive
League Against Cruel Sports
Russell Levy
Head of Clinical Negligence
Leigh Day
James Welch
Legal Director
Doug Wills
Managing Editor
London Evening Standard, Independent & Independent on Sunday
Richard Solly
London Mining Network
Ruth Grove-White
Policy Director
Migrants’ Rights Network
Paul Farmer
Chief Executive Officer
Tom Steinberg
Keith Porteous Wood
Executive Director
National Secular Society
Michelle Stanistreet
General Secretary
National Union of Journalists
Santha Rasaiah
Political, Editorial and Regulatory Affairs Director
Newspaper Society
Libby Anderson
Policy Director
Magnus Nome
Open Democracy
Jonathan Gray
Director of Policy & Ideas
Open Knowledge Foundation
Jim Killock
Executive Director
Open Rights Group
Chris Taggart
CEO and co-founder
Louise Hazan
Campaigns Manager
People & Planet
Tim Davies
Practical Participation
Dominic Ponsford
Press Gazette
Nicki Rensten
Prisoners’ Advice Service
Cathy James
Chief Executive
Public Concern at Work
Andy Rowell
Public Interest Investigations
Richard Hawkins
Public Interest Research Centre
David Hall-Matthews
Managing Director
Publish What You Fund
Andy Gregg
Chief Executive
Race on the Agenda
Maurice Wren
Chief Executive
Refugee Council
Graham Smith
Chief Executive Officer
Lucas Amin
Co-founder and Operations Director
Request Initiative
Susan Bryant
Rights Watch (UK)
Amy Aeron-Thomas
Executive Director
Paul Gibbons
Save FOI
Bob Satchwell
Executive Director
Society of Editors
Tamasin Cave
Jonathan Isaby
Political Director
Taxpayers’ Alliance
Gavin Aitchison
News Editor
The Press in York
Penelope Gibbs
Transform Justice
Alexandra Runswick
Unlock Democracy
Vivienne Hayes
Chief Executive Officer
Women’s Resource Centre

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