UK Group Campaigns Against Proposed FOI Legislation

17 May 2013

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has detailed its objections to proposed changes to the British freedom of information law and launched a drive to get support from members of Parliament.

The criticisms are summarized in an eight-page letter signed by Maurice Frankel, CFOI’s Director. The letter says the proposed changes would make it easier for the government to refuse FOI requests on cost grounds.

An effort is under way to build support for a motion introduced by members of Parliament from different parties urging that the FOI law be protected. Conservative MP Richard Shepard proposed the motion and received support from members from the Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, the leader of the Green Party and also the Social Democratic and Labour Party. Supporters of the law are asking for the public to urge their members to support the motion.

Irony Seen in UK OGP Role

The CFOI letter concludes by noting that the UK government is currently lead co-chair of the Open Government Partnership and that the government claims to be “one of the most open and transparent in the world.”

“We are bemused by this claim which appears to assume that all that is needed to be a world leader in openness is the publication of more datasets. At a conference on 17 October 2012 the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude complained of how little use was being made of the datasets that had been published, urging those present to encourage their colleagues to take greater interest in them. There is an obvious irony in the government trying to persuade the public to make more use of the information the government wants to us to have, while seeking to restrict access to that which people are asking for themselves.”

Proposals Critiqued

As summarized by CFOI, the main proposals are:

(1) to allow the time which officials spend considering a request and redacting exempt information to be taken into account in deciding whether it can be refused on cost grounds (para 15)

(2) to reduce the cost limits themselves from £600/£450 to some lower amounts (para 18)

(3) to permit unrelated requests made by one person or group to be refused where these become so frequent as to become ‘disproportionately burdensome’ (para 19)

(4) to introduce charges for appealing to the Information Rights Tribunal (para 24)

CFOI wrote: “Any one of these measures would have a potentially serious impact on the operation of the Act. Together they would substantially undermine the Act.”

New Guidance Undercuts Need

The letter also argues that new guidance from the Information Commissioner on vexatious requests makes the legislation unnecessary. (See related report.)

The guidance “is clearly going to lead to many more requests being refused as vexatious,” according to the letter. The group argued that the guidance, and a recent court decision, makes it “wholly unreasonable” for the government to proceed with legislation.

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