‘Badly scorched’ Tories cave on plans to charge for Freedom of Information requests

Matthew Hancock © Stefan Wermuth
Brits will not be charged for tabling Freedom of Information (FoI) requests following an independent review of the legislation that indicates the scheme is “working well” as it stands, the government has announced.

Britain’s FoI Act has afforded UK citizens the right to access data held by government departments and public bodies since 2005. 

While the legislation’s critics say it is costly and an impediment to officials wishing to communicate confidentially with politicians, its proponents warn charging citizens for FoI requests would amount to a “draconian” assault on citizens’ right to access information.

No legal changes

Speaking on Monday, Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock confirmed the Act would remain unchanged. He had assembled a five-member committee to review the legislation in July.

“After 10 years, we took the decision to review the Freedom of Information Act and we have found it is working well,” 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 FoI commission tasked with reviewing the legislation consisted of Lord Burns, who acted as its chair, Lord Carlile of Berriew, Dame Patricia Hodgson, Lord Howard of Lympne, and former Labour Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

It found no evidence that Britain’s FoI Act requires a radical overhaul or that people’s right to access information should be curbed. It also said long delays for processing FoI requests must be addressed, and no plausible case for introducing fees can be put forward. The committee’s report also outlined a number of recommendations on how to eradicate uncertainty relating to the Act.

'Remarkable climbdown' 

Commenting on the FoI Commission’s findings, Labour Party deputy leader Tom Watson noted the government’s change of heart.

“This is a remarkable government climbdown in the face of sustained opposition from Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, and the media,” he said.

“I’m delighted that Matthew Hancock has decided the FoI Act is ‘working well.’ Labour has been making the same point for many months.”

Watson said Labour firmly believes that the Act’s scope should be broadened to include private sector firms that win public sector contracts.

He also called upon the government to disclose the full cost of running the FoI commission – which ultimately maintained the status quo despite months of expensive deliberations. 

Campaign for Freedom of Information director Maurice Frankel said the government had heeded the public mood on the need for transparency, and backed off with its hands “badly scorched.”

“It has demonstrated in a way that’s never been demonstrated before that the Freedom of Information Act has massive public support,” he said.

“It is valued and relied on not just by campaign organizations but by the public, by the press and by large parts of society. It is not something the government can now dispose of at a whim, particularly in the way that it attempted to do with the setting up of the commission.”

Future of FoI

Britain’s FoI Act applies to over 100,000 public bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It requires that written requests are answered within 20 working days. If a request warrants consideration of the wider public interest, the time limit can be extended.

The legislation does not apply to requests for environmental data or personal data. Such requests are considered separately under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 and the Data Protection Act 1998 respectively.

The Commission’s aversion to rewriting the FoI Act comes after Hancock was presented with a 43,000-strong petition urging him to leave the legislation alone.

The petition had been arranged by Hands Off FoI, a campaign launched by the Society of Editors last October.

The campaign was set up amid widespread fears that the Commission would recommend the introduction of FoI fees and restrictions making it easier for public bodies to reject requests.