NS warns Government plans could 'neuter' FoI Act

The Newspaper Society has warned regional editors in a briefing that government proposals could "neuter" the Freedom of Information Act.

Before the year is out the government plans to push through two fundamental changes. The first would allow public authorities to aggregate the costs of all FoI requests made by one individual or organisation and refuse their request if costs exceed £600 for government organisations and £450 for other bodies.

The second would allow bodies to refuse any request that involves a lot of "thinking time" on cost grounds. This would take into consideration whether the issue had been raised before and whether they are politically contentious.

The NS is urging editors to contact their local MPs, send letters and discuss the implications of the proposals while highlighting to them where the FoI has been instrumental in breaking important news stories.

Editors are also being encouraged to campaign against the restrictions in their papers and on their websites.

Regional political editors and lobby correspondents will also be briefed as will other users in the country who may not be aware of how the proposals could affect them.

The NS said of the proposals: "These changes could neuter the Act as an effective tool for holding public authorities to account."

The NS raised the matter with Constitutional Affairs minister Harriet Harman last week and FoI minister Baroness Ashton is due to hold a meeting with the Society in early December.

Editors looking for further information can visit the Department of Constitutional Affairs' website: www.dca.gov.uk which sets out information on the FOI Act. The Government's proposals are on page 13 of the Government response to the Constitutional Affairs Committee's report.

The Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs commissioned an independent review, to look at the impact of the Freedom of Information Act. Minutes of the meeting of the FOI users group are on the DCA website here. They include useful arguments to counter the Government's proposals.

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