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October 21, 2015updated 23 Oct 2015 1:10pm

Press Gazette launches petition to stop charges for FoI requests which would be a ‘tax on journalism’

By Dominic Ponsford

Press Gazette has today launched a petition urging the Government to back away from a bid to water down the Freedom of Information Act.

The petition describes any move to introduce fees for FoI requests as a "tax on journalism" that could severely hinder investigations.

It has been launched as part of the Hands Off FoI campaign launched by the Society of Editors in conjunction with Press Gazette and Holdthefrontpage.

SIGN THE PETITION

The Government’s Independent Commission on Freedom of Information is currently gathering information for a ten-year review of the act.

Speaking at a briefing today, senior legal counsel for Human Rights group Article 19 Dave Banisar said: “This commission is an attack on Freedom of Information from a Government that claims they are independent and transparent…

“We don’t want FoI being reduced to being just about open data.”

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It is widely feared that the commission is the precursor to a move by the Government to weaken FoI by adding new restrictions on the release of information, strengthening the ministerial veto and adding new fees.

When announcing the review of the act, Justice Secretary Michael Gove said it was intended to address “defects” highlighted by former Labour minister Jack Straw.

Straw (pictured) is one of five members of the commission and has already made clear he thinks FoI goes to far. In 2012 Straw told MPs he wants to exempt information relating to the formulation of government policy from being subject to FoI.

The commission’s terms of reference include six questions that appear to be weighted towards weakening the act for requestors.

Questions one, two and three of the commission consultation ask whether there is sufficient protection for internal deliberations at public bodies. Question four asks whether the government should have a veto over the release of information. Question five asks what is the appropriate enforcement and appeal system for FoI requests and question six asks whether controls are needed to reduce the FoI burden on public authorities.

The consultation document does not ask whether the act should be strengthened or broadened.

Chief executive of the Campaign for Freedom of Information Maurice Frankel said today he believes the review will look at introducing fees for FoI requests.

Charges for FoI have already been backed by various public bodies including: the National Police Chiefs' Council (formerly the Association of Chief Police Officers), King’s College and Birmingham City Council, which thinks FoI questions should cost £25 each.

Frankel said: “There’s going to be an enormous amount of pressure for this, the Government will have their doors knocked down by public authorities who want this to happen.”

Internal deliberations by public authorities are already exempt from FoI unless there is an overriding public interest

Frankel believes that the Government wants to remove this public interest test meaning any information relating to the formulation of public policy – including surveys, research, statistics and consultation responses – would become exempt.

The deadline to submit evidence to the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information is 20 November.

The Society of Editors has urged journalists to provide examples of FoI requests which have made a difference to make the cases for leaving the act alone.

Sign Press Gazette's petition to Minister for the Cabinet Office Matthew Hancock MP: Don't weaken the Freedom of Information Act

Petition full text:

The Freedom of Information Act established the broad principle that public bodies must release information if the public interest in doing so outweighs the public interest in it remaining secret.

We, the undersigned, urge the Government not to do anything which would detract from that principle.

In particular we urge you:

  • to ensure that the Act continues to allow for the release of internal discussions at local and central government level when there is a public interest in doing so
  • not to seek to create any new veto powers over the release of information
  • not to introduce charges for Freedom of Information Act requests or appeals.

Any charges could dramatically undermine the ability of requesters, including regional press journalists and freelances in particular, to use the Act to hold authorities to account.

Investigative journalism is time-consuming, expensive and sometimes difficult to justify for news organisations which are under financial pressure. It needs to be nurtured and encouraged, for the benefit of society and democracy, not subject to Freedom of Information charges which would be effectively be a tax on journalism.

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