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April 7, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:13am

‘Broken’ FoI system must be fixed to combat rising government secrecy, warn editors and MPs

By Andrew Kersley

More than 100 editors, celebrities and MPs have signed an open letter calling for stronger Freedom of Information (FoI) provisions to combat rising government secrecy amid warnings the current system is “broken”.

In an open letter to information commissioner John Edwards organised by Open Democracy, the signatories called for clearer protocols, better-funded oversight and harsher punishments for those flouting FoI laws.

The letter was signed by a wide array of public figures, including Guardian editor Katharine Viner, Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, comedians Joe Lycett and Josie Long, Tory MP David Davis, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, shadow solicitor general Andy Slaughter and National Union of Journalists general secretary Michelle Stanistreet.

The letter said that while FoIs were “a critical tool for rooting out ills”, a rise in “late responses, stonewalling, public-interest-test delays, repeated misuse of exemptions, as well as opaque and inconsistent monitoring and enforcement” meant the current system was “clearly not working”.

The letter added: “The accountability that FoI provides is in real danger of disappearing, which poses a threat to the long-term national interest of this country. It is time for fresh thinking and bold action to deliver FoI transparency in the public interest.”

According to a recent Open Democracy report, 2020 was the worst year on record for FOI in the UK, with just 41% of requests made to the central government being granted in full.

Edwards, who took on the role of information commissioner in January, is currently undertaking a series of events around the UK and conducting a public survey to help “improve” the ICO’s work.

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The letter, submitted to coincide with that consultation, is calling on him to put more funding into casework to help deal with a growing backlog at the Information Commissioner’s Office. It reportedly takes the organisation 12 months to open an investigation into some complaints at present.

The letter also asks for “clear compliance thresholds which trigger monitoring actions” and “clear enforcement protocols for dealing with systemic patterns of poor compliance” by government ministries.

Open Democracy editor-in-chief Peter Geoghegan said the way the public has been kept in the dark about Partygate means “the importance of transparency has rarely been more obvious”.

He said: “At Open Democracy, we are constantly encountering public bodies and government departments which stonewall, delay and dodge Freedom of Information requests.”

On Tuesday The Guardian revealed the Cabinet Office had refused to even confirm or deny the existence of photos taken by official Downing Street photographers at the alleged lockdown-breaching parties.

Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner said: “Journalism in the public interest often depends on Freedom of Information laws, which help the public understand the decisions made by the authorities.

“Such laws are essential to a well-functioning democracy. When the Government fails to meet its transparency commitments, it is essential that the ICO is able to step in to make sure ministers and public bodies comply with the law.”

Others among the more than 40 journalists who signed the letter include Observer editor Paul Webster, Financial Times assistant editor Janine Gibson, chief data reporter John Burn-Murdoch and ex-editor Lionel Barber, Daily Mirror assistant editor Jason Beattie, ex-Channel 4 News political correspondent Michael Crick and editor Ben de Pear, former Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger, and ex-Independent editor Chris Blackhurst.

NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet added: “The present delays in the FoI system can kill a time-sensitive story stone dead. It can take up to 18 months – or years especially if appeals are involved – to get full replies. This isn’t good enough.

“Journalists report that government departments can be obstructive and hide behind a culture of secrecy. FoIs are a useful tool for journalists to hold public bodies to account, but the system is broken and needs swifter action to be taken against those who break the time limits to replies.”

One of the signatories, Tory MP David Davis, previously suggested that avoiding answering Freedom of Information requests has become a “political strategy in its own right” in the current Government.

The Cabinet Office, headed by Michael Gove, was previously lambasted by a judge for having a “profound lack of transparency” over FoIs.

The judge was responding to an Open Democracy investigation that exposed the existence of an FoI “clearing house” in government, which was coordinating responses to requests from journalists. The clearing house is currently the subject of an ongoing parliamentary inquiry.

Responding to the letter’s publication, the information commissioner said: “We acknowledge the concerns expressed in this letter. FoI plays an important part in civic engagement and holding public services to account, and we share the desire to see the law work effectively.”

Edwards added: “I recognise the concern around timely access to information, and addressing this is a priority.

“We all benefit from a modern law, and I think there are suggestions in this letter that warrant further consideration. My office will be part of those discussions, though decisions about law reform are for ministers and parliament to make.”

Picture: Society of Editors, Reuters/Olivia Harris

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