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November 15, 2016updated 16 Nov 2016 11:31am

New threat to FoI as Government ponders removing right to appeal against Information Commissioner decisions

By Dominic Ponsford

There is a new apparent threat to weaken the Freedom of Information Act, just over six months after the Government promised to leave the Act alone.

In March, following the publication of an extensive review of FoI, Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock said: “After 10 years, we took the decision to review the Freedom of Information Act and we have found it is working well.

“We will not make any legal changes to FoI. We will spread transparency throughout public services, making sure all public bodies routinely publish details of senior pay and perks.”

But now the Government has said it is considering resurrecting one of the key recommendations the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information: ending the right to appeal to the First Tier Tribunal against a decision by the Information Commissioner’s Office to block the release of information.

Currently some 20 per cent of appeals to the FoI tribunal are successful. If the changes go through, it means FoI requestors would only be able to appeal to an FoI tribunal if they thought the Information Commissioner had made an error in law.

The Justice Committee’s Second Report of session 2016/17, on courts and tribunal fees, said: “We see no reason to disagree with the view of the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information that legislation should be introduced to remove the right of appeal to the First-tier Tribunal against an Information Commissioner decision.”

The Government’s response states: “The Government does not believe that this recommendation is related to court and tribunal fees and we believe that strictly it falls outside the terms of reference of the Justice Committee’s inquiry.

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“Nevertheless, as set out in the statement on 1 March 2016 of the then Minister of State at the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, this is one of a number of recommendations made by the Independent Commission that are being carefully considered.”

The Campaign for Freedom of Information said: “Abolishing the FTT would require such legislative changes.

“The FTT is a vital safeguard against poor decisions from the Information Commissioner.

“In 2014, some 20 per cent of requester appeals to the FTT were wholly or partly successful.

“The Campaign believes that depriving requestors of this right of appeal would seriously weaken the public’s right to know.”

Pictured: Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham

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