Victory for campaigners as ministers backtrack on FOI

Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock.
Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock.
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Campaigners have called for freedom of information laws to be extended after the Government backtracked on plans to introduce new restrictions.

An independent review found the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act was “generally working well” despite claims the powers were being misused and proving costly to public bodies.

Threats to put new limits on access to information and introduce fees for making requests under FOI rules triggered a vocal campaign in defence of the current law.

Johnston Press, the media company which owns The Lancashire Evening Post, was among those which made the case for FOI to the commission set up to review the rules.

In its submission, Johnston Press highlighted The Lancashire Evening Post’s use of FOI to reveal the cost to the taxpayer of paying suspended police officers as just one example of important issues that would not have come to light without the Act.

Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock said: “We will not make any legal changes to FOI. We will spread transparency throughout public services, making sure all public bodies routinely publish details of senior pay and perks.

“After all, taxpayers should know if their money is funding a company car or a big pay-off.”

The commission’s report found “no evidence that the Act needs to be radically altered, or that the right of access to information needs to be restricted.”

It continued: “In some areas, the Commission is persuaded that the right of access should be increased. More generally, the Commission would like to see a significant reduction in the delays in the process whereby without good reason requests can go unresolved for several years.

“We have not been persuaded that there are any convincing arguments in favour of charging fees for requests and therefore we make no proposals for change.”

Campaigners welcomed the Government’s decision but urged ministers to heed the commission’s call to extend FOI to cover more areas.

Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake said: “The Government should have seized the opportunity to make private companies, doing public work, subject to FOI.”

He added: “The Government should also have dumped the powers that enable Ministers to overrule the Information Commissioner and Tribunal.”