The Freedom of Information Act is an essential tool for the British people to hold authority to account. The Coalition's new proposals will erode its powers, expose the NHS still further and deliver an underhand blow to democracy.
The Freedom of Information act was introduced to Britain after much delay, long after other democracies including the US and Australia. Less than a decade since it came into force, the Coalition are already trying to curtail it.
On January 24th, at a poorly attended debate in Westminster Hall, justice minister Helen Grant laid out plans to reduce the amount of money spent answering Freedom of Information requests by public authorities. It was also announced that private contractors, such as G4S, Capita and others working in the NHS, who work under public contracts, would not be made subject to the Act, despite pressure from campaigners. The proposals are likely to significantly limit the number of requests that are responded to, as well as impacting seriously on the public’s ability to hold officials to account.
The FOI act allows anyone to request information from a public authority, such as a local council, government department or school, as long as requests are not subject to an exemption, or go over a cost limit. At present, staff can reject requests which breach a cost limit of £600 for central government and £450 for other public authorities. In 2011, central government received 47,000 FOI requests, costing £8.5million in staff time.
At the debate last fortnight, Grant said the “burdens” placed on authorities who have to respond to requests under the act need to be reduced. “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,” she added.
One option the government is considering is blocking ‘industrial requests’ that are made by a person or group of people to the same authority. This may limit, for example, a local newspapers’ ability to hold an authority to account. Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, Maurice Frankel, explained: “A single request about school exam results might be enough to reach the cost limit. Thereafter the whole newspaper – not just the individual journalist – might be barred from making any further FOI requests to the authority for the next quarter, even on different issues such as child abuse, road safety or library closures”.
The government says this will only have an impact on a small number of requests made. However Sir Alan Beith, the chair of the justice committee that scrutinised the act, said it could affect a high number of requests: “We could be talking about over a thousand requests here and we are concerned about it, particularly about its potential impact on local newspapers. The local newspaper may want to follow up stories relating to a number of different local services, education, highways, social services, it could very quickly find that it’s falling foul of this aggregation".
The Campaign for Freedom of Information has also warned that the intention to introduce “thinking time” for civil servants responding to a request would not allow complex requests to be answered. Grant said the government "recognise the practical difficulties of including such tasks, but we do think it’s worth looking at to see what might be done.”
She followed this by praising the success of FOI, stating that the government is committed to greater transparency. She also told MPs that the number of public authorities covered by the act would increase in coming years and could include more than 2,000 housing associations. There was no mention of the fact that the Coalition has decided that private companies who work under public contracts, and are funded by the tax-payer, should not be included under the act. Instead, they will have “transparency clauses” in their contracts.
These changes, if not regulated properly, will damage the openness of many important public institutions, including the NHS. Conservative MP Sir Richard Shepherd spelled out what this would mean in practice: “Let us suppose there are suspicions about the use of outdated, or potentially substandard, or even contaminated supplies by hospitals. For an NHS hospital, the Act could be used to obtain details of stocks of the product, analysis results, correspondence with suppliers, minutes of meetings at which the problem was discussed, concerns about the issues raised by staff and details of how they were handled, as well as information showing what measures were considered, why particular options were rejected and what was done,” he said. “Such information would not be available in relation to independent providers treating national health service patients.”
The government hope to bring forward the secondary legislation during the next two years to implement the changes after further consultation. These moves are the start of the erosion of the Freedom of Information act.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information is holding a briefing meeting on February 18 to decide what can be done to stop the changes.