Those of us who feel strongly about the value of public sector transparency, and the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA), might make the mistake of thinking that everyone, incuding our elected representatives, feels the same. However, a Westminster Hall Debate on the 24 January suggests the post-legislative scrutiny of FOIA is not the most pressing of issues in the eyes of MPs: only a handful attended
As the opening speaker, Alan Beith (who also chaired the Justice Committee scrutiny sessions) said, this might have been because another important debate was taking simultaneously taking place in the Commons, on extending the franchise. Nonetheless, as previous experiences have shown, it is important that those of us who care about the subject remain vigilant.
For interesting analyses of the debate I would point you to excellent pieces by Alistair Sloan, and Matt Burgess (Matt did two pieces) on which I gratefully draw. As they show, the key contributor to the debate was by Helen Grant, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, speaking on behalf of the government. As saveFOI and other commentators have expected, and as the Ministry of Justice’s response to the Justice Committee’s report indicated, the government is looking at some potentially illiberal amendments to FOIA.
She spoke of “disproportionate burdens” caused by “industrial users” of the Act
We cannot ignore concerns raised about the burdens it imposes on public authorities, this is especially important in the current challenging and very difficult financial climate and at a time when more Freedom of Information requests than ever before are being received…We will also consider…ways to reduce burdens in a fair and proportionate way, including addressing where one person or a group of peoples use the act to make unrelated requests to the same public authority so frequently that it brings an inappropriate burden.
On one view this is not greatly exceptionable. The issue of vexatious requests, by vexatious requesters, is a problem for defenders of the Act, and the Information Commissioner and Information Tribunal arguably take different approaches to these cases. Forthcoming decisions by the Upper Tribunal may bring some clarity. However, as Matt suggests, within the category of a “person or a group of peoples [using] the act to make unrelated requests to the same public authority…frequently” could fall journalists, campaigners and local active citizens. Any changes which threaten the ability of these and other groups properly to hold public authorities to account will be vigorously opposed.
Ms Grant also confirmed that the government is looking at reducing the section12 minimum cost limit beyond which requests need not be dealt with, while introducing an effective “thinking time” provision. As Maurice Frankel, of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, told the Telegraph
Any request raising new or challenging issues is bound to require significant thinking time at first and be liable to be refused under these proposals. Authorities should not be protected from having to think about new issues, that’s a recipe for stagnation.
There was also suggestion that the use of the bludgeoning ministerial veto will be reviewed, not to see if it can be used less, but if its use might be extended beyond the “normal” usage relating to cabinet discussions (“there is no limitation in the Freedom of Information Act itself which prevents the veto being used for other information”).
So, despite the supportive words of Alan Beith – long a friend of freedom of information – and some of the few other MPs who turned up, it seems, as Paul Gibbons warned in our last post, that “the Government has decided to take its own course on FOI”.