Help shape the future of the FOI Act

10:01 am - January 16th 2012

by Newswire    

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The Freedom of Information Act is being reviewed by a parliamentary committee which is likely to recommend changes to the law.

This could be an important opportunity to improve the Act. But there will also be significant pressure for new restrictions from public authorities concerned about the cost of dealing with FOI requests or lobbying for new exemptions.

If you would like to contribute to the exercise, it is important to act quickly.

The deadline for submitting evidence to the committee is 3 February 2012.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information is holding a briefing meeting on January 18 at 2 pm for those who are considering giving evidence.

This ‘post legislative scrutiny’ of the Act is being carried out by Justice select committee of the House of Commons.

It has been prompted by the Ministry of Justice which has published a memorandum highlighting specific areas of concern, including:

· Increasing request volumes
· The cost to public authorities and impact on resources
· The difficulty in refusing vexatious requests
· The level of protection given to policy advice and cabinet papers
· The impact on public authorities with commercial functions

The memorandum also:
· Acknowledges delays can occur in conducting public interest tests and carrying out internal reviews
· Discusses the possible extension of the Act to other bodies.

The memorandum says there is “limited evidence” about requesters’ views on the Act. It is therefore important that the select committee hears from requesters and we strongly encourage you to submit evidence about your experiences.

If you would like to attend the Campaign’s briefing meeting on January 18 please rsvp by email to, via Twitter CampaignFOI or by telephoning the office on 020 7831 7477.

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Reader comments

1. domestic extremist

It’s obvious that banks and other private sector firms should
be subject to freedom of information requests, because their decisions affect so many people. But what’s the point of suggesting that to the friends of the profiteers, tax evaders and job exporters, the class enemies who run this society? Does anyone seriously suggest that they give a damn about the interests of ordinary citizens and employees?

2. Christopher Heward

With regards to 1., I don’t think you can really legislate to do that. I mean, it’s akin to SOPA and PIPA which people have been protesting against. I think it’s very dangerous ground, double standards, to say that Government should have no interference in people’s lives, except when a few people don’t like the people/organisation in question. But beside that concern, I just don’t think you could legally do that,and FOI just applies to public bodies (although maybe there’s the potential to say that any organisation that receives government funding should be liable to FOI requests (although this, like SOPA and PIPA would be seen as an excuse to delve into the accounts of various groups, even smallish charities.

More generally, I think what we need is an independent office of data. This body would not be run by a minister but by an elected board, and would house ALL government data. Any government departments who want to use this data would have to apply (in a streamlined way) to the office who would log all the different groups that have used this data. The information would be graded according to sensitivity, and those with lower grades of sensitivity would be open to members of the public, either through making requests, or publishing it all online. This would not only make it easier to access, but once all data is in one place, departments would be able to see where they are replicating themselves in their data collection. It would also save money as only one office/department would have to look after the data, plus as this department would be independent, it would mean the government can’t hold back releases, can’t edit results, and can’t use the data to spy on people (assuming the fact that the board is elected means corruption should be kept to a minimum).

Importantly, it would reduce a heck of a lot of FOIs, when people just FOI some stats when they’re already publicly available, just people don’t know where to get them, or how to apply, or what they actually mean. This would therefore cut a lot of the time spent by individual departments responding to these kind of requests and they can focus on the important FOIs and more importantly the work they’re actually meant to be doing!

3. domestic extremist

I don’t recognise in my post anything resembling Christopher Heweson’s account of it to the effect that “Government should have no interference in people’s lives, except when a few people don’t like the people/organisation in question”.

What I was proposing was that since citizens’ lives are profoundly influenced by the decisions now taken behind closed doors by companies and corporations, businesses should also be subject to freedom of information legislation.

It is not acceptable in any society which claims to be democratic that a vast tranche of it – the very sector which evades taxes, offshores citizens’ jobs and pays obscenely inflated salaries and bonuses to its top functionaries – should operate outside close public scrutiny.

4. Christopher Heward

@3 Sorry maybe I was pre-empting a common argument I’ve heard, but basically I think that just because of the way a company is structured doesn’t make them inherently bad, which is what a lot of people seem to think or promote.

I think there’s not really any way we could make all companies be open to FOI because some simply don’t have the resources to cope with the requests, plus I’m not sure what kind of a legal requirement you could put on people to declare their accounts, etc. I mean if you’re self employed you wouldn’t expect to be open to FOIs, so how many individuals do you need to employee before you are eligible to FOIs?

Having said that, perhaps something could be adapted. Perhaps if people want to be registered as a corporation they need to sign up to FOI? I think corporations get decent tax rates (from their point of view), so maybe to get this lower rate you need to agree to be open to FOI-type things. Or if that wouldn’t work, perhaps they could nationalise the stock exchange and to be traded on that you need to be open, but I can’t see that becoming law (and not sure how you’d prevent alternative stock exchanges appearing).

So whilst I appreciate where you’re coming from, I think there’d be no grounds on which to include all private businesses in this (and probably no legal right), and I’m not sure how you’d work out who was/should be liable to respond to FOI requests?

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