Pray for Freedom of Information!

THE ALREADY weak Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is under threat of becoming even more restricted. Ministers propose that Government departments be allowed to count the time taken to produce answers when calculating the cost of replying, and use this to reject more FOIA requests as being "too expensive".

The government also proposes targeting "serial requestors" (which they admit are mostly journalists) to limit the number of requests an individual or organisation can make.

The government is holding a "consultation" which closes on 8 March. It has mentioned "laying before the House" the Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2007 on 19 March. This would be a "negative resolution" Statutory Instrument, which means it's up to alert MPs to "pray against" it to force a vote.

If passed, the restrictions could in principle come into effect as early as 17 April - so London Freelance Branch isn't sure whether its planned meeting at the House of Commons on 16 April is mounting a defence or a rearguard protest. Campaigners do report signs that the government is backtracking on its fast-track timetable.

Of the 62,825 requests that have been made to central government under the Act up to December 2006, 26,038 have been "exempted". An additional 17,000 FOIA requests will be turned down annually under the proposed restrictions.

The recent epidemic of red faces at the Home Office is mostly down to the FOIA. It also has a vital rôle to play in reinvigorating the beleaguered local press, with revelations about local authority "hospitality" and parking enforcement contracts. Eastern Daily Press Assistant editor Paul Durrant recently told Press Gazette; "I've tried to encourage all our journalists to use the Act as an important part of our armoury." The paper submits two requests a month, and used FOIA to reveal that more than 1600 suspects had jumped bail in East Anglia.

But not enough of us are making FOIA requests - the Independent estimated only 50 per cent of journalists have used the Act so far. (A report of an LFB meeting on FOIA is at www.londonfreelance.org/fl/0610foia.html) The NUJ has joined the Press Gazette's campaigning to save FOIA. Go to www.pressgazette.co.uk and click on the logo that has "Don't kill FOI" scrawled across Tony Blair's face.

There's an online petition and details of how to send your submission to the consultation, how to write to your MP asking them to add their signature to an Early Day Motion on FOIA, with the time limits for all of these. Watch this space and look out for email alerts .

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