Freedom of Information law to stay unchanged after review


Ministers are facing demands to reveal the bill for the review of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act after they appeared to drop many of its recommendations.

The Government has dismissed the prospect of any changes to the legislation following a major backlash from the media, campaigners and opposition parties.

The announcement came despite the independent commission - led by former mandarin Lord Burns and also featuring ex-justice secretary Jack Straw - suggesting a series of alterations.

Its report, published after seven months of work, said the rules were "generally" operating well but called for legislation to "clarify beyond doubt" that ministers can wield an exemption over disclosure of material such as Cabinet minutes.

There were also proposals for merging and bolstering Sections 35 and 36 - which provide exemptions for policy formulation and ministerial discussions - to protect "collective Cabinet responsibility" and "frank exchanges of views" within government.

While stopping short of making a formal recommendation, the panel expressed support for allowing public authorities to include time spent censoring material when calculating whether complying with a request would breach the cost ceiling.

Other ideas that were welcomed by FOI campaigners included imposing a 20-day limit on public interest assessments to prevent authorities kicking requests into the long grass, and bringing in the same restriction for internal reviews of refusals.

The commission also expressed "sympathy" with complaints that the cost ceiling, currently £600 for Whitehall departments and £450 for local authorities, had not been increased since the Act was introduced in 2005.

The report said there was a "case" that the level should be increased to match the "disproportionate cost threshold" applied to questions tabled in Parliament - currently £850.

However, the Cabinet Office indicated that it would seek to shore up the ministerial veto by changing the way it is deployed, and guidance would be updated to address other issues.

Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock said: "We will not make any legal changes to FOI. We will spread transparency throughout public services, making sure all public bodies routinely publish details of senior pay and perks."

The Prime Minister's spokeswoman added: "We are not seeking to change the legislation."

Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson said the news was a "remarkable Government climbdown in the face of sustained opposition from Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, and the media.

"I'm delighted that Matthew Hancock has decided the FOI Act is 'working well'. Labour has been making the same point for many months," he said.

"We believe the Act should be extended to cover private sector companies that win public sector contracts and we will continue to make that case. Our cross-party report will continue and recommend improvements to the Act.

"In the meantime, the Tories should now set out the full cost of setting up and running the Government's independent FOI Commission, which has decided after many weeks of expensive deliberations to maintain the status quo.

"If the cost is not disclosed we will submit an FOI request that his department will no doubt process speedily."

Maurice Frankel, of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: "On the whole, ruling out the legislative changes rules out changes to the Act, and that is a positive development.

"That means we are not going to see the public's rights being substantially undermined."

He said it was clear that the Government was "stepping right back".

"They have taken the public temperature and they have jumped away with scorched hands," he added.

Bob Satchwell, director of the Society of Editors, described the announcement as "good news" but said there was still a case for extending the powers of FOI to include organisations acting on behalf of public bodies.

He said: "It's a victory for common sense in that it appears that the Government has backed away from putting restrictions on this Act which has created a vital public service and particularly allows the media to inform the public about information which they are entitled to know.

"But, on the other hand, the clear evidence from the review was that there's a strong case for what has been a very helpful piece of legislation to be extended to make it really effective for the public."

Peter Clifton, Editor-in-Chief of the Press Association, who gave evidence to the Commission, said: "We are absolutely delighted that the FOI Act has escaped legal changes, and that the Commission found it is working well.

"PA regularly uses the FOI Act, and it is a vital tool for us to hold our public institutions to account. We look forward to using it for more ground-breaking journalism in the future."