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  1. Media Law
March 1, 2016

Success for Hands off FoI campaign as Government promises to leave the Act alone

By Dominic Ponsford

There will be no legal changes to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act after a review of the legislation found it was "working well", the Government has announced.

The move was announced by Cabinet Office Minister Matt Hancock and comes after he was presented with more than 43,000 signatures in a Press Gazette petition urging him to leave the act alone.

The Hands Off FoI campaign was launched by the Society of Editors in October with the backing of Press Gazette.

It followed widespread fears that the Government Independent Commission on Freedom of Information would recommend new charges on the Act and new restrictions making it easier for public authorities to turn down requests. The Commission was partly prompted by concerns that the ministerial veto on FoI disclosures had been rendered impotent after it was overturned by The Guardian in the Supreme Court in the Prince Charles letters case.

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. After all, taxpayers should know if their money is funding a company car or a big pay off."

The Newspaper Society, Society of Editors and Press Gazette were among organisations submitting detailed responses to the FoI Commission consultation. Many news organisations also made submissions saying how vital the act was and Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre made a personal submission in which he said:  "The Act should be left as it is – or strengthened to allow more scrutiny of government."

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On the public sector side: the Russell Group universities, Local Government Association and NHS authorities were among those arguing that the act was causing them an unnecessary "burden" and putting them at risk of "reputational damage".

The prospect of changes to FoI triggered a backlash from journalists, opposition politicians and transparency campaigners.

Cabinet minister Chris Grayling has previously accused journalists of "misusing" the laws to "generate" stories.

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: “We have welcomed what appears to be a partial victory. Ministers have quite rightly backed away from restrictions to the Freedom of Information Act and have pledged to spread transparency throughout public services.
“A powerful case was made during the Review for extending the Act and cultural change is certainly required but that is difficult to achieve. We must maintain the campaign to change the default switch from tell them nothing unless forced to one where public bodies release information which the public is entitled to have unless there is an exceptional  reason for withholding it.”
Director of the Campaign for Freedom Information Maurice Frankel said: "The Commission has stepped back from the one-sided agenda which the government initially appeared to set for it, of restricting access to internal policy discussions, introducing charges for requests and making it easier for authorities to refuse requests.
"Instead it has also looked at the case for improving the legislation. The government itself has clearly been scalded by the criticism it has received from the press and public and made it clear its not prepared to take its initial agenda forward. We now need to ensure that the Act is extended to contractors providing public services and bodies like the National Crime Agency which have been deliberately excluded.”
The Campaign said it is most concerned by the proposal to remove the right of appeal against the Information Commissioner's decisions to the First-tier Tribunal (FTT) which deals with FOI requests.  This would make the IC’s decisions final, unless appealed on a point of law to the Upper Tribunal.  
The Commission recommends that the ministerial veto should only be used against decisions of the Information Commissioner, not the tribunal or courts. It proposes new legislation to prevent appeals against Commissioner decisions where a successful appeal would otherwise have been vetoed in the past. The government has said it will not legislate for this at present. 


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