Does anyone care about the draconian and far-reaching changes proposed to the once glorious Freedom of Information Act?
While Shilpa Shetty swanned through the House of Commons yesterday and charmed everyone she met, truth seeking MPs were actively debating their concerns over the curtailment of access to vital information, which could begin as soon as 19 March.
I have just read the Hansard report of this crucial debate and I am very disturbed by its implications, which I believe people are totally unaware of. I am also staggered to learn that up to 1 February, there were only 21 responses to this consultation - and that they are fairly evenly split.
It is not just a cost issue, far from it. What this boils down to in the words of Labour MP Don Touhig, is a mere annual saving of £12 million, the cost of cutting 20,000 requests from the new criteria, cuts which he describes as ”blunt and brutal” and contrary to the whole intention of the Freedom of Information Act, as well as “mean-spirited”.
The £12 million saving equates to just 4 per cent of the total cost of running the COI, the government’s press office - which would you rather have, fact or spin? It is also feared it will deliberately curtail contentious issues - in effect, gagging whoever it chooses.
Freedom of Information requests are presently answered free of charge, although applicants can be asked to pay for photocopying and postage costs. However, a Department can refuse to process a request if it estimates that the cost will exceed £600. Local authorities, national health service bodies and other public authorities can refuse if the estimated cost exceeds £450, based on £25 per hour staff time. The DCA proposes to include the costs of reading the information, consulting other authorities or bodies about the request and considering whether to release it: three more hurdles, all of which are unnecessary
Touhig is also concerned that the changes will make the requests open to abuse because it will aggregate campaigners, journalists, lawyers and academics according to their “legal body” and refuse requests made by the same individual or organisation if the combined cost of answering their requests exceeds the limit of £600 for central government and £450 for other public bodies. He warns:
“I have grave fears that the proposed new regulations will invite abuse. Authorities will realise that by deliberately extending the hours that they spend, or estimate that they will have to spend, on a request, they will be able to ensure that a request for information is rejected.
“The more people the authority decides to invite to a meeting to discuss the request, the easier it will be to reject it. Instead of just bringing in the officials directly involved, the authority might decide that it would make sense to bring in line managers and departmental heads. A two-hour meeting involving six people at £25 an hour each automatically adds £300 to the cost of the request. A few additional hours will usually be needed to find the information, then there is the time needed to read it and to extract the relevant passages, and we see how we move very quickly towards the cost limit. That work could easily bring the request up to the £450 or £600 threshold without much having been done. If there were any doubt, and the authority did not wish to release the information, it could add an extra few hours by consulting its legal department.
“Politically contentious requests will also be hit. Inevitably, authorities will spend longer considering such requests, particularly if the consequence of disclosure may be to suggest that the policy the authority is pursuing is a mistake or is not working as intended. The mere fact that the request is contentious and the disclosure could have serious consequences for that authority could lead to it being refused under the new proposals. Secrecy would replace scrutiny in very critical areas and we should resist that.”
Alarmingly, Touhig warns that newspapers may be punished for being “un-cooperative or disruptive” - and quite rightly asks who will make that subjective decision.
“The next factor is even more alarming. Page 14 of the consultation paper proposes that authorities should take into account the volume of requests made by an applicant in the past and whether the applicant has been “un-cooperative or disruptive”. I am sure that nobody in this room would ever be un-cooperative or disruptive in seeking information, but that measure appears to be a direct invitation to authorities to discriminate against applicants who have not shown them sufficient deference.”
And if we need reminding about the importance of the FoI Act, this is how Tony Blair described it back in 1996 when he was Leader of the Opposition:
“A Freedom of Information Act is not just important in itself. It is part of bringing our politics up to date, of letting politics catch up with the aspirations of our people and delivering not just more open but more effective and efficient government for the future.”
So what has made Blair change his mind? Why is government deliberately taking this backward step, why does it fear the truth? Touhig cited recent examples obtained from FOI, including some amusing cases:
“The MOD has released includes anonymised details of investigations into alleged offences by soldiers in Northern Ireland, the types of boots used by the armed services, the number of service personnel failing drug tests and information about complaints of discrimination and bullying. On a lighter note, the MOD has also released its recipe for curried meatballs, and disclosed reports of UFO sightings in Wales, including a black object hovering over Rhyl, a flying disc over Newport and a spinning craft with legs flying over the valley where I live.”
The ridiculously short 12 week consultation period for this ends on 8 March - with the new regulations implemented 19 March. How can we persuade government to extend this consultation period? Do you feel less information should be made available through FOI? Just think of all those questions the public and our activists will be unable to access, how crusading newspapers will struggle to get true answers from a government that wants to cover up the true facts. [Just think of how many University managers will use the new measures to cover-up their actions.]
If you want to object and share our concerns, then contact Vera Baird a.s.a.p.
Vera Baird MP
Redcar Constituency Office
Redcar Station Business Centre
Vera Baird MP
House of Commons
Private Office to Vera Baird
Telephone: 020 7210 8294