29 March 2007

The day after we mailed invitations to more than 170 MPs, the government announced an extra three months' public consultation on the proposals - Guardian report.

Information wants to be free

FREEDOM of Information is under threat, only two years after the Act finally came fully into force in the UK. Why? Perhaps because it's been a resounding success: by December 2006, people had made 62,825 requests for information. Many led to major news stories, from fat-cat Hackney Council executives to the bankruptcies of NHS trusts. Of those requests, 26,038 were rejected. The government wants to give itself power to refuse thousands more - using a most obscure parliamentary procedure.

Cartoon for the US campaign http://sunshineweek.org © Kirk Anderson - www.kirktoons.com

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 gives the Minister power to set charges for answering requests, and public authorities the power to refuse requests above a maximum cost. This power is exercised under the Act by laying a "Statutory Instrument" (SI) before Parliament.

Now the Minister wants to include the cost of time spent thinking about refusing a request in the cost which allows it to be refused. To achieve this elegantly circular goal, he drafted an SI. Consultation closed on 8 March with 186 responses. The Press Gazette handed in a petition from 1250 journalists.

Originally, the Minister planned to lay the SI before the House on 19 March and have it in force on 17 April. Now he's giving himself "up to three months" to read the responses. Then, this is a "negative resolution" SI, which means it becomes law by default, unless MPs "pray against" it. At press time 126 MPs had signed an Early Day Motion opposing the restrictions, so the prayer looks confirmed.

And then... even Maurice Frankel, longstanding campaigner at the Campaign for Freedom of Information (www.cfoi.org.uk), told the Freelance he isn't yet sure a debate on a negative-resolution SI can be forced in the full House of Commons. Is it restricted to a Committee of the House? A debate in the House of Lords seems assured.

London Freelance Branch is meeting to defend Freedom of Information at the House of Commons on 16 April. See the Branch calendar.

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