Our right to know is coming under threat

PUBLISHED: 11:24 30 November 2006 | UPDATED: 14:55 12 May 2010

MP Oliver Heald wants to ensure the Freedom of Information Act is not changed

MP Oliver Heald wants to ensure the Freedom of Information Act is not changed

THE Freedom of Information Act is under threat – less than two years after it became law. Proposals are being discussed in Whitehall that will see the Act diluted and make it easier for requests to be rejected. But Oliver Heald, the MP for North East Hert

THE Freedom of Information Act is under threat - less than two years after it became law.

Proposals are being discussed in Whitehall that will see the Act diluted and make it easier for requests to be rejected.

But Oliver Heald, the MP for North East Herts, is opposed to any changes to the Act.

In his role as Shadow Constitutional Affairs Secretary, he claimed that the Government was attempting to prevent public scrutiny.

And it is understood that there will not be any public consultation about changes to the Act.

Mr Heald said he believed the Government was trying to "close down public scrutiny by curtailing the public's right to know with this more restrictive regime".

One move being considered is that instead of treating each request under the Act separately, these would be placed together as one request, no matter how many there are.

In the long run this could see requests becoming more unlikely to be answered because the cost of retrieving documents would exceed the cost of £600 for Government papers and £450 for other public bodies such as local councils.

Mr Heald said he believed that the introduction of the Act has become "too embarrassing" for the Government.

The Government is believed to be considering that time spent on "reading time" and "consideration time" and "consultation time" will mean that more requests will hit the notional costs limit.

This will see Government departments and public bodies requesting a fee from those making requests.

"The plans to allow Government officials to aggregate requests are of serious concern and could easily be abused by an administration with something to hide," said Mr Heald.

He continued: "Media organisations, pressure groups and opposition political parties faced being stonewalled because other colleagues in the same organisation were also making requests."

A consultants report to Constitutional Affairs Secretary Lord Falconer says that requests to Whitehall departments under the Act is costing the Government £24 million-a-year and requires 400 civil servants to administer the Act.

Earlier this year a Commons Select Committee held an inquiry into the Act after it had been law for a year to assess its impact after 12 months and said it had seen "the release of significant new information".

It said the information released was being used in "a constructive and positive way".

An Early Day Motion in Parliament - which Mr Heald supported - said there was no need to change the Act's charging arrangements.

It said it was "concerned" that the Government was considering changing the charging regime.

Since the introduction of the Act some 136 requests have been sent to North Herts District Council of which it has been able to answer the majority. There were between 70-80 requests which were not really under the Act and were passed to the relevant department.

Most of the requests concerned information about planning, parking issues and licensing of various types.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, who spent 20 years campaigning for the Act, said in a letter to Government ministers on Monday that he was "alarmed" at the speed in which the changes appeared to be moving.

He said public consultation was being avoided because the Government was "determined to pursue" the changes in the Act.

Mr Heald added: "It is clear that this is a stealth attempt to curtail the right to know and hinder individuals from asking for information to which they are entitled."

WHAT THE ACT MEANS

WHEN the Freedom of Information Act was introduced at the start of 2005 is seen as a "radical change" in making information available to the public.

People were given the right to raise questions of 100,000 public authorities which included government departments, local authorities, the police, schools and NHS trust.

At the time Lord Falconer, the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, said: "The need to know culture has been replaced by a statutory right to know. Previous invisible information will become visible."

He said he was convinced that the Act would make Government and other public bodies more open.

"Our long-term goal is to strengthen the link between the state and the citizen."

He continued: "The far-reaching legislation will lead to factual material behind decisions being made by the Government and public bodies shared with the public for the first time.

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