A government announcement that there will be “no legal changes” to the Freedom of Information legislation following a review of the act was being cautiously welcomed by campaigners on Monday.
The report of a commission established in July by Matthew Hancock, Cabinet Office minister, to examine whether the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act 2000 is too expensive and intrusive is to be published on Tuesday.
Pledging to encourage transparency in the public sector, Hancock said on the eve of publication: “After 10 years we took the decision to review the Freedom of Information Act and we have found it is working well.
“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 five-member committee, which has been described by campaigners as an “establishment stitch-up”, includes the former Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw, who is already on the record calling for the act to be rewritten.
Also on the panel is former Conservative party leader Michael Howard, whose gardening expenses were criticised after being exposed by FoI requests, and Dame Patricia Hodgson, the deputy chair of Ofcom, which has criticised the act for its “chilling effect” on government.
Reacting on Monday night to the Cabinet Office statement that there would be be no legal changes to the act, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information said the words used suggested that it was less likely that the statutory changes campaigners and others had feared were on the way.
“The most substantial changes [that] had been floated would require legislation. But it could be that they are now possibly talking about various forms of guidance,” added Maurice Frankel, director of the campaign, which works for the strengthening of the FOI act and advises the public on their right to information.
“What has been notable has been the universal criticism from the all corners of the press. No signifiicant newspaper or even individual commentator, as far as I am aware, has said: ‘Let’s face it the FoI act has gone too far’.”
FoI campaigners have been concerned that the commission could recommend introducing a charge for freedom of information requests or tightening the rules on how much a request can cost.
The commission has been consulting on three central changes: charging for the requests, making it easier to refuse requests on cost grounds and giving ministers more powers to veto disclosures so that Whitehall has a safe place where civil servants and ministers can devise policy out of the public eye.
Giving more veto powers and increasing or introducing new charges would require statutory legislation, according to experts.
Under current freedom of information law anyone can ask for information as long as finding it does not cost a government department more than £600 or another public body £450.
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