Act to defend the Act!

IT'S TIME to act, once more, in defence of Freedom of Information. Two years after the UK's already-diluted Act came into force, the government wants to hobble it. It's holding a second "consultation" on this - and we are asking you to make your voice heard.

Please visit www.dca.gov.uk/consult/dpr2007/cp2806.htm follow the links to the "Supplementary Paper" and "Supplementary Paper Questionnaire" and answer the two questions in the latter. There's also space to give your general views.

Richard Shepherd speaks: photo © Sara Haq
Heather Brooke, Norman Baker and (speaking) Richard Shepherd at the House of Commons on 16 April

The very successful London Freelance Branch meeting at the House of Commons on opposing the changes provided a huge range of arguments that we hope make their way into the consultation: 21 June is the deadline.

What's it all about?

The government wants to restrict the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which came into full force in January 2005. To do this, it chose the most obscure and quietest Parliamentary procedure: the bit of the Act allowing the Minister to declare what information requests are "too expensive" to be granted.

Under the proposals officials of public authories could cost time spent staring out of the window while thinking about whether to refuse a request, at £25 an hour.

Or, as NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear pointed out in the Commons meeting, they could think about calling a meeting about refusing a request, add up the time and travel expenses - and then not hold the meeting, because they have already refused the request on the grounds that the meeting would have cost more than £600 (£450 for public authorities other than central government) if they had held it.

Worse, the changes could mean that if a freelance puts in a request to, say, the Ministry of Defence, then the cost of granting that counts toward a £600 per 60 days limit on requests by a newspaper she's done work for - even if her request wasn't going to inform a story for that paper. Could the MoD count her request against the limit for every paper she's ever done work for? Will editors have to ban freelances from making requests, just in case?

Freelances may wish to stress this. Is it a restraint of our trade?

Meanwhile...

David Maclean, Conservative MP for Penrith, introduced a Private Members' Bill to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act. Norman Baker MP pointed out at the Commons meeting that the government whips' remaining silent on this constitutes tacit approval.

On Friday 20 April the Maclean Bill received, er, very thorough consideration in the Commons - and ran out of time. But then it magically revived. (It went to the back of the Private Members' Bill queue, which was empty.) Maclean then postponed the second debate - at the time of writing this was due to take place on 18 May.

23 May 2007

The Maclean Bill passed the House of Commons on 16 May. Opposition now moves to the House of Lords and the Branch will do all it can to support it there.

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