A new year, and it would seem, a new threat to Freedom of Information. If 2012 was about pushing back on calls for charges for making Freedom of Information requests, then 2013 looks to be the year we fight attempts to introduce other ways of blocking access to the same information.
The Justice Select Committee spent many hours digging into the impact of FOI before delivering a lengthy report last summer. The Government responded in November and, generally, was quite positive: They kicked the idea of charging for FOI requests into touch.
But they did insist they’d keep on looking at way to reduce the alleged burden FOI is causing public authorities. I’ll come back to this burden a bit later on.
In a debate at the end of last month, justice minister Helen Grant said:
“Despite the many benefits that the Act has brought, we cannot ignore concerns about the burdens that it imposes on public authorities. That is especially important in the current challenging financial climate and at a time when more freedom of information requests than ever are being received. Central Government received 47,000 initial applications in 2011, at a cost of £8.5 million in staff time alone. Local authorities and other public bodies are also affected. We aim to focus our efforts on the disproportionate burdens placed on public authorities by what we call industrial users of the Act.”
That should set an alarm bell ringing in any newsroom which makes regular use of the Freedom of Information Act to hold public authorities to account.
Anything which allows an organisation to target ‘industrial users’ of the Act can only serve one purpose: Turning the FOI Act from what it was intended to be – your right to request information – in a selective access-to-information mechanism controlled by those with a vested to keep their secrets, well, secrets.
But how would the Government determine an ‘industrial user.’ Here’s where things get very worrying:
We will also consider other ways to reduce burdens fairly and proportionately, including addressing where one person or group of people use the Act to make unrelated requests to the same public authority so frequently that it becomes an inappropriate burden.