Justice minister Helen Grant said the “burdens” place on public authorities by the the Freedom of Information act need to be reduced. 

She responded to MPs questions and the Justice select-committee’s scrutiny of the FOI act, which took place last year, at a debate in Westminster Hall yesterday.

While the majority of MPs were in the House of Commons deciding whether the legal voting age could be reduced from 18 to 16, a small group of interested MPs spoke on the issue of FOI.

In total 5 MPs were present at the debate, including the minister (and they all took a break to vote in the HoC). However, as commented by those present the quality of the contributions was high, even though the quantity was few. There could be a serious correlation between MPs disdain for transparency which includes their own affairs and the number that attended – but that is for a different time.

One of the key points the minister was keen to make was the fact that the government are trying to embrace openness.

She said: “The government remains committed to greater transparency and the Freedom of Information Act is a key part of this. It’s been successful in its key aims of increasing openness, transparency and accountability. It’s not perfect but it’s generally working well. The government is not proposing a radical overhaul.” 

But this has to be queried by the announcement that they are going to pursue reducing the cost of the Freedom of Information act.

To do this the proposed options to limit “industrial” requests was reiterated. Below is what she said on the main points that were discussed.  

Industrial requests

Miss Grant:

“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. Central Government received 47,000 initial applications in 2011 at a cost of £8.5m in staff time alone. Local authorities and other public bodes are also affected we aim to focus our efforts on disproportionate burdens placed on public authorities by what we call industrial users of the act.”

MPs and the Campaign for Freedom of Information have warned that if the government try to cut down on the amount of ‘industrial requests’ then the quality of local journalism could suffer.

Burdens need to be reduced

Miss Grant:

“We will also consider other 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. I would like to assure members present that whatever measure we ultimately try to take we will have regard to the need to reduce burdens without an excessive impact on transparency.” 

‘Thinking time’

The minister dismissed the committee’s recommendation that the cost limit placed on answering requests (£600 for central government and £450 for other public authorities) should be reduced to save money. However it seems clear the government are going to press ahead with introducing the ‘thinking time’ and time it takes to redact documents into the cost limits.

Miss Grant:

“The Justice committee recognised the issue in recommending a small reduction in the cost limit beyond which requests need not be complied with. We believe that this result in the most minimal reduction in costs so we will consider whether to go further on this.

Ministerial veto: 

Miss Grant announced that the ministerial veto which has been used six times since the act came into force would be reviewed. Most recently the veto has been used to by the Attorney General  Dominic Grieve to block the publication of secret letters written by Prince Charles to ministers. The letters were used to lobby MPs on legislation and before the veto was used 7 government departments lost a FOI tribunal.

Chairman of the Justice committee, which scrutinised the act, said that any ministers who wish to try and use the veto should know they are going to receive criticism.

The Justice minister said:

We’ve announced our intention to review and as appropriate revise the government’s published policy on the use of the veto, this policy is currently designed to assist on where use of the veto is consider in respect of information which relates to cabinet collective responsibility. However there is no limitation in the Freedom of Information Act itself which prevents the veto being used for other information.” 

Next?

In reality the next steps for the changes will be the consultations the government are set to hold on the matter. This will hopefully see campaigners, FOI officers and journalists asked their opinions of what is recommended before the legislation is pushed through parliament during the next two years.

At the beginning of next week I will post on the discussions at the debate which relate to concerns about private companies who receive public money are not subject to FOI requests. 

 

 

I am a journalist and author. I am a staff writer at the UK edition of WIRED magazine and in 2015 my book, Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists, was published. I created FOI Directory in 2012.