The Daily Mail, Sun, Guardian, Times, Telegraph, Trinity Mirror, have said they “deplore” any changes that would weaken the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
The media organisations are part of 140 bodies – which includes leading campaign and pressure groups – that have written to Prime Minister David Cameron to oppose the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information.
The Commission was set-up in July to review the FOI Act and has been strongly criticised ever since its creation, with one public petition calling for the Act to be protected getting more than 85,000 signatures.
The work of the five person commission is set to look at: if there is enough safe space for officials to make policy, the public interest balance between the need for secrecy and that of disclosure, and the cost of the Act on public authorities.
“We regard the FOI Act as a vital mechanism of accountability which has transformed the public’s rights to information and substantially improved the scrutiny of public authorities,” say the press and campaign groups in the letter organised by the Campaign for Freedom of Information.
It expresses “serious concern” at any potential changes to the FOI Act that would limit the amount of information that is published. Along with the media organisations campaigning groups such as Reprieve, Index on Censorship, ARTICLE 19, Article 39, Big Brother Watch, and more have signed the letter opposing any alterations.
“Such a review cannot provide a proper basis for significant changes to the FOI Act.The short timescale for the Commission’s report, which is due by the end of November, further reinforces this impression. At the time of writing, half way towards the Commission’s final deadline, it has so far not even invited evidence from the public.” The review is reportedly going to start taking evidence at the end of September.
The letter also says that there is “no indication” that those conducting the review will look at how more openness and transparency could be introduced. Previously, Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson has said there needs to be more Freedom of Information and senior Conservative MP David Davis said the review is a “stitch-up”.
Davis’ comments were made in reference to the members of the Commission. The panel has been criticised for being close to the government and having members who have also criticised the effectiveness of the FOI Act.
The letter looks in detail at the five people selected to propose changes to the transparency legislation and says: “In appointing members to such a body we would expect the government to expressly avoid those who appear to have already reached and expressed firm views.
“It has done the opposite.
“The government does not appear to intend the Commission to carry out an independent and open minded inquiry.”
Those signing the letter also say they are worried about the Ministry of Justice’s plan to introduce fees to the appeals process of the FOI Act. If a requester is not happy with a public authority’s response to a FOI request they are then able to ask for an internal review, followed by an independent decision by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
Either a public authority, or requester, is able to challenge a decision of the ICO to the First Tier Tribunal. Under the plans from Michael Gove’s department fees of £100 for a paper hearing and £600 for an oral hearing will be introduced for these appeals.
The letter draws a parallel with the introduction of fees for employment tribunals, which saw a large decrease in the number of appeals once they were introduced. It says: “deterring them [the public] from appealing will deny the public information of wider public interest”.
The full letter can be found below:
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