Warning that Freedom of Information remains 'under attack' as campaign marks ten years of the Act

The Campaign for Freedom of Information warned last night that the FoI Act remains under constant attack from government.

Long-serving director of the campaign, Maurice Frankel, told a reception to mark the Act’s tenth anniversary: “The Act remains under attack.

“Local Government Association regualarly highlights the most bizarre FoI requests…

“The point is to suggest that freedom of information is used for trivial and pointless and vexatious purposes when that is not the case.

“The requests that are featured in those summaries are the requests that cost nothing because no intelligent freedom of information officer is going to spend time searching the files for an action plan on zombies .

“That is what we are facing and are going to continue to face that. The present coalition Government has come up with a series of options for further restrictions on the act which fortunately haven’t come to fruition. We can take it as read that the next government is going to dig up that file.

“It is so easy to do something bad to this act. Parliament won’t get near it, the key bits of this are all secondary legislation on the costs threshold at which requests are refused. They will go through without debate.”

In 2007, a campaign led by Press Gazette prompted the Government to back down on proposals, which would have led to a huge increase in the number of FoI requests being rejected. 

Private Eye editor Ian Hislop told last night's London reception that the Act had been “extraordinary in terms of uncovering stories”.

But he said the other noteworthy aspect of it has been “the way people try and stop you using the Act in the hope that you’ll give up”.

And noting that former Prime Minister Tony Blair once described FoI as his “worst mistake”, Hislop said: “I think there’s one he’s missing”.

He said: “We incessantly use Freedom of Information requests, a lot of our best stories have come from that.”

He cited the example of the former audit general “who was permanently auditing public expenditure apart from his own private junketing account which was absolutely vast”.

And on the Private Finance Initiative, he said: “Our journalist Richard Brooks says the sheer scale, uselessness and unaccountablility of those conrtacts only comes out when you get the detail of these requests.”

He sad that half the stories in Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs section comes from FoI request: “It takes an enormous amount of boring people to death really to get this stuff out, but when it comes it is incredibly good.”

Talking about some of the best stories to have come out via FoI requests he noted the demonstration at a power station where police said they received 70 injuries. An FoI requests revealed no injuries, but one sting “from a possible wasp”.

He said FoI has revealed that PFI has seen £229bn of public money spent on capital that is worth £56bn: “Everyone benefits by knowing these things.”

Des Wilson, who founded the Campaign for Freedom of Information in 1984, spoke of the situation before the current Act came into force.

“The habit of secrecy had spread form the centre to become a disease that weakened our democracy.

“We were even denied access to our own files. In a nutshell mindless secrecy had become part of the British way of life.”

He noted that shortly after the campaign was launched 56 people died in a fire at Bradford City football club. It later emerged that the authorities had twice warned the club in confidential letters that the grandstand was a fire hazard.

Wilson said: “Those 56 people weren’t only killed by fire, they were killed by secrecy.”

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