Downing Street petition: Freedom of Information

Following the Witanagemot Club’s example yesterday, I have submitted an online petition to the Downing Street website:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Reject the restrictions on the Freedom of Information Act proposed by the Department of Constitutional Affairs.

The proposed changes will restrict the number of requests individuals and organisations can make, and allow Government Departments to include ‘reading time’ in fees calculations, greatly increasing the scope for obstruction of legitimate requests. As the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee concluded, there is no need to change the existing fees regime. Indeed, the cost of the Freedom of Information Act is less than was originally projected by the Government, and the transparency provided by the Act can only benefit efficient government. (Sign the petition here)

Details of the Government’s proposals are available on the website of the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA):

the Government is minded to:
include reading time, consideration time and consultation time in the calculation of the
appropriate limit (£600) above which requests could be refused on cost grounds; and
aggregate requests made by any legal person, (or persons apparently acting in
concert, to each public authority (e.g. Government Department) for the purposes of
calculating the appropriate limit.
(Government Response to the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee Report
Freedom of Information-one year on

The Select Committee’s view on the matter was this:

18.  We would be concerned
if there were  cases where public authorities were spending weeks
finding information. Since authorities may already include this
time within their calculations of chargeable limits, we do not
consider that it would justify a review of the fees regulations,
but it would demonstrate a serious shortcoming in some public
authorities’ records management systems. (Paragraph 97)

19.  We recommend that
problems with ‘frivolous’ requests should be dealt with through
the existing provisions in the Act. We do not consider that this
is an appropriate reason for reviewing the fees regulations. (Paragraph

20.  We see no need
to change the fees regulations. There appears to be a lack of
clarity and some under-use of the existing provisions. We recommend
that the DCA publish the results of its internal fees review when
it is concluded and that it conducts a public consultation before
deciding on any change. (Paragraph 104) (Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs Seventh Report)

The Government’s position is partly based on a review carried out for the DCA by Frontier Economics.

David Leigh and Rob Evans had some interesting things to say about this review in the Guardian last month.

A cabinet paper leaked in July showed what Falconer was up to. In a bid
to throttle the FOI infant in its cradle, he decided many requests
would in future be rejected as too expensive to process. To head off
critics, he would commission a cost-benefit analysis. This would then
give him a "solid evidence base" to make the changes. The consultants,
Frontier Economics were paid £75,000 to come up with the figures. The
firm’s directors include Sir Andrew Turnbull, the former Cabinet
secretary – although Frontier Economics says he was not directly
involved in the report. (Guardian)

Steve Wood of of the Freedom of Information and Open Government blog believes that the cost of the Freedom of Information Act is actually less than was originally projected by the Government.

Martin Rosenbaum of the BBC’s Open Secrets blog believes that the Frontier Economics review overestimates the number of requests made by the BBC, and would drastically curtail the broadcaster’s use of the Freedom of Information Act

The Campaign for Freedom of Infomation said the new regulations would punish requestors in cases where Ministers decide to get involved.

The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said “ministers often insist on personally taking any sensitive decisions under the FOI Act. Allowing their time to be counted means that the more politically contentious or embarrassing the request, the greater the chance of it being refused on cost grounds. It is deeply unfair to penalise requesters because ministers are anxious about negative publicity. In cost terms, it would be just as effective to discourage ministers from getting involved in these decisions in the first place.” (Campaign for Freedom of Information)

As it stands the Freedom of Information Act is potentially a very useful tool for bloggers and other citizen journalist/activists as well as the professional media. My own use of the act has produced at least one useful result in the shape of an MOD reply about Arms dealer Viktor Bout. Although the reply mostly confirmed information in a previous story by Andrew Gilligan,  I am told that some of the companies mentioned had not been publicly linked to Bout before.

Of my other requests, the one on the death of Jean Charles De Menezes served mainly to educate me about some of the exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act.

Another request that was knocked back concerned  Britain’s role in the Iraq security contract awarded to Aegis Defence Services. In fact, Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon provided a slightly more forthcoming response.

If the new regulations are imposed, perhaps the old tradition of making US requests to find out what’s going on in Britain will come back into vogue.







3 responses to “Downing Street petition: Freedom of Information”

  1. Tim Worstall avatar

    Britblog Roundup #93

    Yes, it is indeed that time of the week again when we showcase your selections of the best of the blogging output of these isles. You can make nominations for next week’s simply by emailing the URL to britblog At

  2. Greenslade avatar

    Petition against FoI Act restrictions

    On Friday I reported on the Newspaper Society’s campaign against further restrictions on the operation of the Freedom of Information Act (FoI). Now journalist Tom Griffin has opened another avenue of protest by launching a petition under the special se…

  3. Livewire100 avatar

    Good idea to get people to sign up to the Downing Street petition.
    But what about the possible areas of the country where road pricing might be trialed? The Mail (I think) listed ten yesterday.
    There might not be a convenient “official” petition, but starting online petitions specifically for each of those areas would make it far harder for local councils to ignore the view of electors.

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