I spent yesterday afternoon at a briefing held by the Campaign for Freedom of Information over proposed changes to the legislation which is supposed to hand us all the right to know.
The Campaign’s excellent Maurice Frankel delivered to succinct summary of the areas which should worry us. From a journalistic point of view, I picked up on the following proposal which should cause concern:
1. Reducing the time limit from 18 to 16 hours before a request can be rejected: Never good news to see the time cap reduced, but even more worrying when the following point is taken into consideration:
2. Allowing time for ‘considering’ FOI requests to be included in the 16/18 hour cap: This has the potential to effectively kill FOI. How on earth do you determine what counts as consideration?
3. Charging a flat fee to go to the Information Tribunal: This could be a flat fee of £80. You can argue that if you’ve gone to the trouble of appealing to the refusing authority, then to the Information Commissioner and still not got the answer you want, you’ll find £80 to go to the Tribunal. But that’s not the point. It’s another deterrent.
4. Asking contractors carrying out services for public authorities to operate under FOI voluntarily. Because they’ll all sign up to do that, won’t they? (I’ll do another blog on this later in the week).
5. Grouping FOI requests on different subjects but by similar people together so they can be treated as one. In theory, all local newspaper journalists going to the Home Office with FOI requests could be counted as one.
Number 2 is probably the most worrying. All of a sudden, FOI becomes less a piece of legislation where they assumption is that the information should be released, and more a piece of legislation where the assumption is that if an authority thinks about the request for long enough, the information won’t be released.
One person in the audience for the briefing summed it up very well by saying that it will effectively incentivise inefficiency. The more people involved in discussing an FOI, the less likely it is to be released. How do you determine consideration time? One scenario put forward was that a period of time for each recipient of an email discussing the request would be counted as 15 minutes towards the 16/18 hour cap. If that’s 10 people, all of a sudden those hours are being eaten away quickly.
So if you’re an FOI officer at a council where you keep records in a logical manner and have an authority around you which is pro-disclosure, you’d probably still release a lot of information. If, however, you’re an authority where – say – the council leader insists on vetting FOI requests – like Kirklees – all of a sudden, you have to release a lot less.
According to Frankel, the government plans to move ‘without delay’ to bring in the new changes. The government argues this is about reducing the ‘burden’ of FOI – yet at the same time, local government secretary Eric Pickles says he wants greater transparency to hold local authorities to account. At some point, you’ve got hope one part of government speaks to another.
Politicians looking to make it harder to be asked difficult questions? Perish the thought.