Constitutional Affairs Committee

Press notice No. 35 of Session 2006-07

21 June 2007

EMBARGOED: not for publication or broadcast in full or in part, in any form, before 23:59 on Sunday 24 June 2007


An influential Committee of MPs has called on the Government to scrap its plans to restrict freedom of information and has criticized the Bill to exempt MPs from freedom of information rules.

In a report released today, Monday 25 June 2007, the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee says Ministers should take the opportunity afforded by their consultation on proposed changes to the charging regime for Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to abandon the “unnecessary, unpopular and undesirable” reforms.

The Committee says Government has not adequately weighed up the balance of costs and benefits to public authorities and the public of providing greater access to information and openness.

The Committee concludes:

“There is no objective evidence that any change is necessary. The cost-benefit analysis provided with the Government’s consultation papers is incomplete. There is clear evidence that the proposed amendments could be open to manipulation and abuse. There is no sign that any consideration has been given to proper funding of the independent review process. The proposed measures have the scope significantly to reduce the flow of information into the public domain. We recommend that the proposed new charging regime be withdrawn.

“The proposed regime could result in public authorities avoiding answers to embarrassing, contentious or high-profile cases as the number of internal consultees rises in proportion to the sensitivity of particular requests.“

The Committee says the Bill for an exemption from the FOI Act, passed by the Commons but currently stalled in the House of Lords, “would be contrary to the culture of openness which we have argued should prevail in the public service.”

Rt Hon Alan Beith MP, Chairman of the Committee, said:

“The Freedom of Information Act works. It enhances the rights of the public. Neither the Government nor MPs should be seeking to limit its effectiveness, and there is no evidence here to support either the Government’s proposals on fees or the Bill. I am hopeful that both will now be dropped.”

The Committee also expresses concern that Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) does not have sufficient resources to deliver an effective FOI complaints resolution service - especially with the predicted increase in complaints if the proposed fees changes were brought in - and repeats its call for the ICO to be made independent of Government and instead funded by and accountable to Parliament. “We question whether it is appropriate for the Ministry of Justice to set the funding levels for the independent regulator and thereby directly influence its capacity to investigate complaints.”

1. The Government indicated last year that it planned to review the operation of the Act and the DCA (now Ministry for Justice) cited to the Committee “a degree of anecdotal evidence from organisations about the pressures they were facing”.

In the Act as it stands, public authorities do not have to respond to Freedom of Information requests above a certain cost threshold. The Government has proposed changing the way the time taken to process and respond to an FOI request is calculated, so that authorities could include reading time, consideration and consultation time in the calculation of time spent, and could aggregate requests from the same applicant on different subjects. This would mean that the threshold would be reached for a greater proportion of requests, giving authorities the ability to refuse requests more often

2. In the Committee’s review of the operation of the new Freedom of Information Regulations “one year on” in June last year they concluded that the Act had already brought about significant and new releases of information that was being used in a constructive and positive way by a range of people and organisations. Neither the Committee nor the Information Commissioner saw any need to review the operation of the regulations or charging regime. The Committee’s report of June 2006, “Freedom of Information, one year on “ is available on the Committee’s website below.

3. The Government’s consultation on changes to the FOI fees regulations closed on 21 June 2007.

4. Committee Membership is as follows: Rt Hon Alan Beith MP (Chairman), David Howarth MP, Siân James MP, Jessica Morden MP, Julie Morgan MP, Robert Neill MP, Mr Andrew Tyrie MP, Rt Hon Keith Vaz MP, Dr Alan Whitehead MP, Jeremy Wright MP

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EMBARGOED: not for publication or broadcast in full or in part, in any form, before 23:59 on Sunday 24 June 2007