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Government may back down on 'neutering' of FOI

Possible U-turn on widely-opposed plans

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The government has stepped back from controversial plans to change the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. It has launched a supplementary consultation (pdf) that could result in a U-turn on some of its widely-opposed plans.

Following a government-commissioned report which identified journalists as a likely source of the most expensive FOI requests, the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) said that it was "minded" to lower the cost threshold above which public authorities could refuse requests.

Crucially, it also increased the number of activities which could be charged for in the calculation of costs, putting most complicated requests beyond the threshold and eligible for refusal on cost grounds.

The DCA has now launched a supplementary consultation, asking for views on the plans and for alternative suggestions of how it could balance openness and the need to keep costs to the public purse down.

"It is entirely right a reasonable amount of money and time is spent dealing with requests for information," said information rights minister Baroness Catherine Ashton. "But public money is limited and it is the government's responsibility to ensure it is not unduly diverted from supporting the delivery of frontline services.

"We would like to hear all views and ensure people have the opportunity to comment fully, so we have today published a supplementary paper on the consultation, inviting further comments," she said.

The consultation seeks alternatives to the government's proposals. "Do you consider that the draft regulations would succeed in dealing with the problem? If not do you have any other suggestions for dealing with disproportionately burdensome requests?" it asks.

The move was welcomed by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which had opposed the proposed changes. "This raises the strong possibility that the government will eventually decide to leave the current arrangements untouched," said Maurice Frankel, the campaign's director. "If it does decide to make any changes they are likely to be far more limited than the highly damaging restrictions which had been proposed."

"The decision will now be deferred until after Tony Blair stands down," said Frankel. "It is extremely unlikely that Gordon Brown, who is promising to 'renew' the government, would attempt to do so by neutering the FOI Act in the way that had been proposed."

Public authorities are allowed to add up the cost of finding and extracting information which is requested, charged at a fixed £25 an hour. If that cost comes in under the threshold, which is £450 for local authorities and £600 for central government, then the information must be handed over.

The new proposals allowed authorities to charge for more of the activity involved, such as reading documents and consulting other staff. More controversially, it allowed an authority to conflate requests from different employees of one organisation.

If an organisation's requests broke the cost barrier it was banned from making another request for three months under a plan which would have thwarted the efforts of newspapers and broadcasters to use the Act to obtain information.

"I'm particularly concerned that responsible media use of the FOI Act is the target for this," Liberal Democrat MP Alan Beith told OUT-LAW when the proposals were first published. Last summer, Beith chaired a Commons Committee which reported on the progress of the FOI Act's use.

"They occasionally cite abuses of this, some of which are by individuals rather than media organisations, some of which can be dealt with by existing powers and none of which require this sort of draconian measure," said Beith.

The consultation is open until 21st June.

Copyright © 2007, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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