Behind Closed Doors

A guest post from Jonathan Baines

“Before the game’s afoot, thou still let’st slip”

The government is said to be proposing to introduce charges for making Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) requests. BBC Newsnight reports that it has

learned that the government is gearing up to charge for freedom of information enquiries… gearing up to charge different tariffs

So now we know where the battle-line is drawn. Or do we?

This story comes in the middle of a process by which FOIA is subjected to what is known as post-legislative scrutiny. This process, under which a committee is asked to investigate how an Act of Parliament has operated since its commencement, has been followed in some detail by the saveFOI campaign: the founders of that campaign (of which I am one) think that the scrutiny is important. We welcome any review of FOIA, while opposing any suggestions it should be weakened. We have attended some of the committee sessions, and live-tweeted remotely where that hasn’t been possible. We have written many blog posts on the subject. Suffice to say we are actively engaging in the process as interested citizens.

But what is strange is that Allegra Stratton’s* Newsnight story did not refer to the post-legislative scrutiny process. It arrived on the back of no committee report, no government statement, no ministerial interview. The government guidance on post-legislative scrutiny suggests that Committee findings should not be pre-judged, or pre-empted

The Committee’s report would contain such observations and conclusions about the implementation and operation of the Act as the committee thought fit. These would be directed towards Government, which would be expected to respond in the normal way

Yet, if Allegra Stratton’s sources are reliable, it looks like someone in government has already made up their mind, and wants to get that message out.

The Prime Minister recently spoke about FOI at the Commons Liaison Committee, and some of that oral evidence was shown in the Newsnight report. He contrasted FOIA unfavourably with pro-active disclosure of information under the government’s Transparency agenda (on this subject, Tim Turner’s post here is essential reading), and said that

Making government more transparent is the best thing

No one would argue with that, although as the saveFOI campaign has previously said, FOI and the Transparency agenda are two cogs in the same machine, not options to be chosen between.

Any proposal to charge for making FOI requests would be a huge (and in my view, detrimental) change to one of our most important civic rights, and transparency surely dictates that such a proposal should be discussed openly, so that pros and cons can be given equal space? Selective, non-transparent disclosure of proposals enables those supporting them to give only such information which supports their cause. It enables them to set the agenda, get the right headlines and draw the opposition’s sting. It is not a transparent process, and I would hope that all people, including politicians, who support the Transparency agenda, would oppose it.

Decisions about the future of FOI cannot be allowed to take place behind the closed doors of government.

*By the way, if Allegra’s reading this – please wear a seatbelt when you’re in the back of a taxi. It’s an offence not to, and, more importantly, it’s really dangerous .

Jonathan Baines works in local government. He blogs at informationrightsandwrongs and tweets as @bainesy1969


5 thoughts on “Behind Closed Doors

  1. Rodney Breen says:

    Indeed, charging is a very, very bad idea. Here are some of the reasons.

    It will dramatically reduce the number of requests: The Irish Information Commissioner revealed a 50% reduction after it was introduced in Ireland.

    Charging requesters doesn’t go anywhere near to paying the cost – in Ireland it meets less than 2% of the cost, and a charging regime is likely to add to the cost burden for smaller organizations:
    The only reason to charge, in other words, is to stop people asking impertinent questions.

    People think FOI is about the public finding out things those in power know. But sometimes it’s about finding out things nobody knows – because nobody has all the information. Research like this:
    is only possible because it allows individuals to gather data from a variety of public sources – a database that hasn’t existed up to that point. At £5 a go, say, this research would have cost £1,135.

    The greatest danger is the weakening of the regulatory regime. Every FOI officer knows that when organizations are reluctant to release information, there’s a strong temptation to withhold even when there’s no strong case to do so, in the hope the requester will not ask for a review and take it to the Information Commissioner. Under the current legislation, reviews and appeals are free. In Ireland, they cost €75 and €150 – that’s a strong disincentive for any ordinary person to take forward a case they should win, and will certainly lead to organisations holding on even more to information they know they ought to disclose.

    Hardly surprising, then, that the Irish government has promised to either reduce charges to a nominal fee or abolish them completely. If England and Wales introduce charges – and Holyrood is likely to follow Westminster on this – it would be a major step backwards.

  2. Tim Turner says:

    I wholly endorse Rodney’s comment.

    No spin or obfuscation should be allowed to mask the aim of any charging proposals – they want to deter ordinary people and journalists from asking questions that politicians and civil servants find inconvenient and embarrassing.

    As someone who thinks that FOI is in everyone’s interests, including organisations, I pledge to help pay fees for people to make legitimate FOIs – especially to the Cabinet Office – if these proposals come into force, and I don’t imagine I will be alone. But let’s not go there. Anyone who believes in democracy and open government should vigorously oppose this misbegotten idea.

  3. Plain grey on a white background is very hard to read if you have poor eyesight. Ponder a moment, if you would be so good, why books are printed in BLACK and white, ratther than pale grey and white!

    • savefoi2012 says:

      Sorry to hear that Jeremy. We’re using an off-the-peg free wordpress theme, which doesn’t allow us to customise font colour (although the font doesn’t display for me as pale grey – more a dark grey?). We’ll consider amending if others agree that it’s difficult.

  4. […] to the effectiveness of the Act from this scrutiny process. Along the way there have been some worrying and some more reassuring rumours. We even felt compelled at one point to write to the Committee […]

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