Reporters Without Borders

Freedom of information faces double threat

Published on Monday 26 February 2007. Updated on Tuesday 27 February 2007.
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The British parliament is to consider changing the Freedom of Information Act following a government report in October that it has proved very expensive to provide information to the public under the act. ""We support the British media campaign against the proposed amendments and we hope they will not be adopted," Reporters Without Borders says.

Reporters Without Borders voiced concern today about proposed legislative changes affecting Britain’s Freedom of Information Act, which was one of Tony Blair’s New Labour election campaign promises in 1997 and which did not take full effect until January 2005 although it was adopted in 2000.

A report by the Blair government in October said the provision of information to the public under the Act had proved very expensive. Now the government has drafted regulations that would limit the dissemination of information by public authorities and restrict the media’s ability to make requests under the Act. The proposed regulations are being circulated for public consultation until March 8 and - following any revisions - could come into force in April. Journalists and freedom-of-information groups have been making loud protests during the consultation period.

Separately, a group of MPs is sponsoring a proposed law that would exempt parliamentary correspondence from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. This move has also been condemned by press-freedom campaigners.

"We must point out that freedom of information is a democratic right," Reporters Without Borders said. "It is regrettable that a right such as press freedom is being called into question in a country such as the United Kingdom."

The press-freedom organisation added: "We support the British media campaign against the proposed amendments and we hope they will not be adopted. It would be deplorable if a government were to consent to the emasculation of a law of which it was itself the instigator."

Much of the information held by state bodies can be supplied in response to a request from an individual or news organisation under the Freedom of Information Act. This has enabled the British media to report information that was kept in private in the past.

Read the report writed by Reporters Without Borders’ correspondent in the UK, Glyn Roberts :

Britain’s new Freedom of Information Act (FIA) is facing a double threat, only two years after coming into effect, say journalists and press freedom campaigners. Critics say government proposals to cut administrative costs by imposing new financial curbs on requests for information will water down the legislation and restrict investigative reporting.

A separate move by MPs to pass a new law exempting parliament from the FIA has also been attacked. Legislators have been accused of seeking to hide behind secrecy - at a time when the FIA has just been used to embarrass some MPs by exposing their large travelling expenses.

Much of the journalists’ ire has been directed at the proposed Freedom of Information and Data Protection Regulations. These are undergoing public consultation until March 8 and - following any revisions - could take effect in the spring. They tighten the rules on staff costs for handling information requests, making it easier for authorities to reject complex requests deemed to exceed financial limits (£600 for central government and £450 for other public bodies). The public interest in releasing the information is not considered. Further restrictions could limit the number of requests to a public body by a news organisation to as few as four per year.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said the regulations could cut the number of requests by up to 20,000 a year from the current level of 120,000 and save £11.8 million of the annual £35.5 million FIA running costs. He wants the proposals scrapped. He said any "complex, probing or potentially contentious request" could be refused - regardless of the public interest - because the time taken to consider and consult on the issues could push costs over the financial limit. "The public would get less information and government would be shielded from scrutiny."

He said that genuinely "vexatious" serial requests for information could already be rejected under the current rules, as shown by a case reported in mid-February, in which the information arbiter ruled against a person who made 15 requests to a transport authority in less than a year. The proposed rule changes were therefore unnecessary, he argued. Another campaign group, Public Concern at Work, said the proposals ignored the financial benefits that freedom-of-information requests brought in deterring waste, inefficiency and fraud in public bodies.

Nearly 1,000 journalists have signed a petition opposing the proposals, and a group of MPs have signed a separate parliamentary petition. Several newspaper editors have backed the campaign. John Witherow, editor of the Sunday Times, said the proposals "would effectively neuter" the law, adding: "The most interesting requests we submit require a public-interest test. It is exactly those requests they will be refusing on the spurious grounds of excessive costs." The Cambridge Evening News said in an editorial: "It would be a terrible backward step if, after just two years, ministers succeed in putting up the shutters again."

In defending the proposals, Vera Baird, the constitutional affairs minister, blamed some journalists for asking too many "unfocused" questions under the FIA, which covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland. (Scotland has a separate FOI law.) She said the government would take opposing views into account before finalising the regulations, but added: "A tiny minority of requests impose disproportionate burdens on the government, some of which frankly take weeks to deal with."

Meanwhile, another group of MPs is promoting a Bill that would exempt legislators from the FIA. Backbench Bills rarely become law, but the government has given this one time for passage through parliament. MPs have complained that the public disclosure of their correspondence infringes their constituents’ confidentiality and inhibits their constituency work.

Mr Frankel said of the Bill: "Its most obvious effect would be to block requests for MPs’ expenses claims. The information commissioner recently ordered disclosure of individual MPs’ spending on car, rail, air and taxi travel... If the UK Bill succeeds, MPs ... would not be troubled by such openness." He added: "To suggest that parliament might now arrange for itself to be removed from this important legislation by an undebated private members’ Bill is extraordinary." He expects it to encounter stiff opposition in the upper chamber - the House of Lords - in April.

See the BBC blog on freedom of information: www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/opensecrets/

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