The Guardian yesterday appeared to have advance news on the outcome of the Justice Committee’s post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act. It reported
Pressure from former senior Labour figures, including Tony Blair and Jack Straw, as well as Whitehall mandarins, to “turn back the clock” on freedom of information legislation has been decisively rejected by an all-party group of MPs…The report…[will]…reject the idea of charging for FoI requests, arguing that any blanket charges that would start to cover the costs would be prohibitively high.
If the article is correct, this is fantastic news. As saveFOI have argued before, the cost of running a charging scheme would be a huge problem. But above all, any change which would hinder people from exercising their rights under the Act would be worrying and retrogressive.
It also appears that the Committee has not bowed to pressure to change some exemptions into absolute ones (which once engaged cannot be overridden by public interest in disclosure):
[it] is to come down against creating a sweeping exemption from FoI legislation for information used in Whitehall policy formulation and development. The MPs also reject weakening the FoI law on the release of information that would prejudice collective ministerial responsibility, or inhibit the frank exchange of views within the government.
The article goes on to suggest, however, that there may be one signficant change to the cost limit for responding to a request:
The MPs do, however, back a two-hour cut to the 18-hour time limit after which a public body can impose a one-off charge to cover the cost of the extra work of dealing with a request.
Such a change could potentially make accessing larger or more complex amounts of information more difficult. While it would be regrettable, if it is the only major amendment, it is perhaps one we can live with.
What was also interesting in the article was the suggestion that the report will be critical of Tony Blair’s lack of engagement with the scrutiny, saying it will
strongly criticise a refusal by Blair to give evidence to its inquiry into the operation of the Freedom of Information Act, after the former Labour prime minister described it as one of his greatest mistakes in office. The MPs’ report will “deplore” Blair’s refusal to give evidence in person or in writing, and will publish his letter explaining that he was too busy.
The indefatigable Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFOI) inform us the report will be published on 26 July: when it is, and if it is as described, it may be that it was strongly influenced by the CFOI’s extraordinarily powerful supplementary submission, which demolished some of the prior claims by those arguing for illiberal changes. But all those who submitted evidence in favour of the status quo, and all who have campaigned to save FOI, will feel their efforts have been worth while.