Two events to celebrate milestones in the campaign for freedom of information were coupled with a stiff warning that the United Kingdom’s hard-won rights to know might be restricted in the future due to expenditure cuts in Whitehall and local government.
Two potential threats were identified: a future government might try to limit applications by increasing the cost threshold for inquiries or might follow the example of the Irish government and introduce a charge for FOI inquiries.
The warnings were given by Maurice Frankel, long-standing director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, and by the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham.
They both voiced concern that frivolous and inane inquiries, especially by journalists, should be avoided because they were being used in a campaign by the Local Government Association and Whitehall departments to try to persuade ministers to save money by limiting the number of applications.
Frankel told guests at a reception to mark the 30th anniversary of the campaign (15.1.2015) that supporters of the right to know had to be on their guard because there might well be a renewed attempt to scale back FOI requests by raising the cost threshold for applications.
“In all likelihood the next government will dig out the file to suggest drastic restrictions, as happened under the coalition. It is so easy to damage the Freedom of Information Act. The cost threshold for applications never gets debated in Parliament and if an authority can say it would be too costly to obtain the information, that gives Whitehall departments and local councils new grounds to refuse applications.”
Graham issued his warning at a question-and-answer session held at City University (4.2.2015) to mark the publication of a new book, FOI 10 Years On: Freedom Fighting for Lazy Journalism?
He said that as far as the Information Commission was aware there were no alterations to the administration of the Act or cost-saving measures on the agenda of the Department of Justice; he thought that was likely to remain the case until after the general election.
His more immediate concern was that a future administration might be tempted to follow the example of the Irish government and try to choke off demand by introducing a charge for FOI applications.
Graham appealed to the news media to act responsibly when using FOI. As Information Commissioner he could not help but disapprove of “journalists having a laugh” by asking inane questions but who were allowing local authorities to claim that the “silly stuff” being requested by reporters was “clogging up the work of public authorities”.
He cited two example: top of the Local Government Association’s list was a request in Wigan for information on the local council’s plans for “dealing with an attack by dragons” and an inquiry to determine how much the Home Office had spent on desk diaries and calendars following delays in the deportation of Abu Qatada.
“The more journalists ask silly questions the more ammunition they give local authorities to say that complying with the Freedom of Information Act is a charge on the rates and that journalists’ are making fun of local authorities at the council tax payers’ expense.
“We have no fees in this country for freedom of information requests but we do have fees in other countries, so we must defend the Act because governments around the world are pushing back and getting fed up with freedom of information; the Australian government has snatched freedom of information back from its Information Commissioner.”
At the 30th anniversary celebration of the campaign, Frankel read out other examples from the LGA’s list of the ten most bizarre requests under FOI, including a question about meteor strikes and another about the arrival of zombies.
“Obviously the press love making such inquiries but the problem is this suggests that FOI is being used for trivial, pointless and vexatious purposes when really such inquiries cost nothing because no one would spend any time looking for the answer.”
Professor Heather Brooke, who led the ground-breaking campaign to secure the release of House of Commons files on MPs’ expenses, supported the appeal to journalists to avoid asking silly questions.
She said the media should recognise that there was a determined campaign within the LGA to force ministers to limit the right to know. Out of the hundreds of thousands of applications that were being made to local authorities, the LGA was picking out silly requests from the media to use in “their campaign to shut down Freedom of Information”.
Ms Brooke said it would be campaigners rather than the media that would be hardest hit by restrictions on access; journalists make one in ten of all FOI requests whereas most come from campaign groups and voluntary organisations.
She agreed with the Information Commissioner that the long-term answer was to urge government departments and local authorities to be more pro-active in releasing routine information and statistics, so as to help keep FOI requests within reasonable proportions.
“We still get a lot of information coming out that is being leaked by politicians and officials and has a high spin on it. That is why we want more responsible journalism and the importance of freedom of information is that it gives us objective news we don’t have access to otherwise.”
Graham said there had been great strides in the pro-active publication of data as a result of the Act and this was a great achievement. One example was the regular publication of salaries of public servants which enabled the media to work out instantly which public officials were earning more than the Prime Minister.
He acknowledged that with more and more public services being contracted out to commercial organisations and the voluntary sector there were demands for such bodies to be designated public bodies so that the services remained subject to requests under freedom of information.
Rather than designate such providers as public authorities, he favoured the introduction of contractual obligations that ensured such services remained under the scope of freedom of information, so that the commercial and voluntary sector knew where it stood. He believed some of the biggest contractors wanted to co-operate and work in accordance with the law. “So I am interested in capturing accountability not by changing the Act but by enforcing contracts.”
FOI 10 Years On: Freedom Fighting or Lazy Journalism? (www.arimapublishing.co.uk)