The UK Government is currently considering proposals that will limit access to public information through legislative changes to the Freedom of Information Act.
Some of the changes proposed would introduce certain restrictions, such as;
- Introducing charges for FOI requests
- FOI requests could be turned down, even more easily on the grounds of cost.
- Internal discussions of public authorities will be more difficult, if not out right impossible to obtain.
- The release of Government information could easily be blocked by ministers.
Currently the UK Government is holding a consultation, which will run until the 20th November 2015. You can view further information about the proposed changes and respond to the consultation at: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/independent-commission-on-freedom-of-information-call-for-evidence.
You can also sign a petition to protect the current FOI Laws at: https://speakout.38degrees.org.uk/campaigns/protect-freedom-of-information?medium=website&source=cfoi&campaign=from_2015-08-18
Why is FOI important?
The FOI act allows individuals to access Public Information and helps improve transparency and accountability of local authorities, local government and national Government.
By introducing charges, low-income individuals will no longer be able to access public information, and will be denied a basic right to access public information due to wealth inequality.
Community websites (Hyperlocals) throughout the UK (including ours) have occasionally used the FOI act to obtain public information. With over 496 active hyperlocal sites operating in the UK, managing to highlight local issues, many of these sites will be impacted in their ability to report on local issues due to the restrictions being proposed for the FOI act.
Investigative journalism by published news organisations will suffer with Press Gazzette stating;
Investigative journalism is time-consuming, expensive and sometimes difficult to justify for news organisations which are under financial pressure. It needs to be nurtured and encouraged, for the benefit of society and democracy, not subject to Freedom of Information charges which would effectively be a tax on journalism.
How has FOI been used by the Press?
One of the most notable case of Journalism and FOI comes from the reporter Heather Brooke, who first broke the story on the MPs expenses scandal.
Heather Brooke took five years and several court cases, including taking the case to the High Court, which led to the release of the second home allowance for 10 MPs.
Heather Brookes stated on the Guardian;
I was interested in our opaque parliamentary expenses system, having learned about the highly transparent system of political expenses in Washington state; when I was there in 1992 as a student reporter I’d been able to access my local politicians’ receipts in a matter of days.
Little did I realise that this simple request to the Commons would end up becoming a five-year investigation, and take me to the high court and back.
Without the data release instigated by Heather Brookes, the MP expenses scandal would have remained hidden from public oversight.
How do we use FOI?
We have used the FOI act occasionally to highlight local issues, and if charges were imposed, we would never have been able to highlight;
- Lomond Homes failure to honour the s75 agreement – https://lochgelly.org.uk/?s=lomond+homes
- Details of the serious valve breakages at Mossmorran which led to the plant operators replacing antiquated parts – https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/mossmorran_flaring_incident_11th#incoming-252302
- Communications between the local authority, councillors and community councillors that agreed to sell of Common Good Assets without any public consultation – https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/lochgelly_town_house_common_good#incoming-602525
What can be done to save the current FOI Act?
There is several ways you can voice your concerns over the proposed changes to the FOI act;
- Sign the 38 Degrees petition – https://speakout.38degrees.org.uk/campaigns/protect-freedom-of-information?medium=website&source=cfoi&campaign=from_2015-08-18
- If you are a journalist, or part of a hyperlocal, you can sign the Hands Off FOI petition – https://www.change.org/p/matthew-hancock-mp-don-t-weaken-the-freedom-of-information-act
- You can write to your MP – https://www.writetothem.com/
- You can respond directly to the consultation – https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/independent-commission-on-freedom-of-information-call-for-evidence
When politicians propose to remove our rights to privacy, we are often told “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”, this statement should then be equally applied to politicians who may wish their activities to be hidden from public oversight. By restricting access to public information and introducing charges, public accountability and transparency, a cornerstone for any democratic process, will be seriously undermined.