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November 10, 2015

PA says FoI changes could create new ‘divine right of ministers’ to veto release of information

By Dominic Ponsford

Press Association has warned that Government could create an unconstitutional “divine right of ministers” if it extends their power to veto the release of information under the Freedom of Information Act.

In a submission to the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information, PA notes that the review of the act has come about in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in favour of The Guardian to overturn the Attorney General’s veto and order the release of Prince Charles’ letters to various government departments.

The PA submissions comes as more than 20,000 have signed a Press Gazette petition launched as a part of the Society of Editors' Hands Off FoI campaign.

PA editor Pete Clifton said : “This decision, it seems, is being used as a pretext for a wide-ranging review of FoI, with the clear intention of limiting its operation.”

He said: “Introducing a ministerial veto which could override the decision of a court following an unsuccessful appeals process by a government department would have the effect of bringing about a major and unjustified constitutional change.

“The use of the veto in the case of the Prince of Wales’s letters was unnecessary and misguided, and the Attorney General was wrong to attempt to exercise it in the manner in which he did. “Changing the law to enable such a thing to happen again would be a serious incursion on the principles of both the rule of law and the separation of powers – it would introduce a Divine Right of Ministers to echo the Divine Right of Kings so beloved of Charles I (pictured).”

The terms of the Government review indicate that it is looking at greater restrictions on the disclosure of information about internal discussions, ways to reduce the “burden” of FoI on public authorities and the possibility of strengthening the ministerial veto.

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PA notes in its submission that the following stories could be outlawed if the FoI Act was weakened to exclude “internal deliberations”:

Stories broken by PA after FoI requests include:

  • The existence of the so-called ‘John Lewis list’ which allowed MPs to claim, among others things, £10,000 for a new kitchen, £6,000 for a bathroom and £750 for a television
  • The fact that councils were using controversial spy laws intended to help fight terrorism to track dog foulers and litterbugs
  • The fact that  hundreds of police officers were convicted of crimes over a three-year period
  • The revelation that 2,000 suspected criminals avoid prosecution because of ill-health or age.

The FoI Commmission is also mulling the introduction of charges for FoI requests, which Birmingham City Council suggested should be £25. And it is considering  further charges for to cover appeals.

PA said in its submission: “Requests for internal review, or appeals, would, under a charging system, almost certainly be beyond the reach of the PA, as they would for all but the wealthiest news organisations. Charities, small businesses, and individual citizens would almost certainly be deterred from seeking information which they should be able to access by right.”

Clifton said: “PA believes that the FoI Act is a major benefit to civil society, helping uncover waste and maladministration, and assisting citizens to reach a greater understanding of what government, local and national, and all the other public bodies for which they pay, do, and how they do it.

“Limiting its reach by extending secrecy in relation to the workings of government, extending the veto, or introducing charges would all reduce its effectiveness, and in so doing damage democracy.

“It is regrettable that the Commission appears to be set on examining ways of restricting FoI – and public access to the information for which they pay, through their taxes – rather than making it more efficient, and widening its remit to cover the £4 billion or so of taxpayers’ money spent through the hands of private contractors such as G4S, Serco, Atos and Capita.

“FoI needs to be improved to keep it effective in informing the public about what government is doing and why. Introducing new restrictions or limitations will have the opposite effect.”

The deadline for submissions to the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information is 20 November.

Sign Press Gazette's petition urging FoI minister Matthew Hancock not to weaken the act.

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