No changes to Freedom of Information law, after outcry over fees

Ministers have made clear there will be no major changes to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act after an outcry over potential curbs.

The Government said introducing routine fees for putting in requests would be "inappropriate" after an independent review found the legislation was "generally working well".

Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock said: "We will not make any legal changes to FOI.

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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 pledge came as the Independent Commission's report into the operation of FOI rules was published.

Praising the legislation for "enhancing openness and transparency", the body suggested some changes were needed to improve "clarity and certainty".

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But the report said: "The Commission considers that there is no evidence that the Act needs to be radically altered, or that the right of access to information needs to be restricted.

"In some areas, the Commission is persuaded that the right of access should be increased. More generally, the Commission would like to see a significant reduction in the delays in the process whereby without good reason requests can go unresolved for several years.

"We have not been persuaded that there are any convincing arguments in favour of charging fees for requests and therefore we make no proposals for change."

The Shields Gazette campaigned against the proposed changes to the FOI Act and received support from local Labour MPs.

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Emma Lewell-Buck, MP for South Shields, said: “I fully concur with Labour’s Deputy Leader (Tom Watson) when he recently said ‘The Tories want to water down the Act, one of the most effective pieces of legislation Parliament has ever passed.

“It has been used by campaigners, members of the public and journalists to uncover data breaches, discover how many criminals are on the run and reveal that our nuclear power stations are in a shocking state of disrepair.

“It should be extended and strengthened’.”

The Society of Editors (SoE), which ran a Hands Off FOI campaign, welcomed the news that there are to be no new restrictions added to the availability of information.

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the SoE, said: “We have welcomed what appears to be a partial victory. Ministers have quite rightly backed away from restrictions to the Freedom of Information Act and have pledged to spread transparency throughout public services.

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“A powerful case was made during the Review for extending the Act and cultural change is certainly required, but that is difficult to achieve.

"We must maintain the campaign to change the default switch from 'tell them nothing unless forced' to one where public bodies release information which the public is entitled to have unless there is an exceptional reason for withholding it.”

Northeast Press editorial director Joy Yates is on the SoE board of directors and managing editor Gavin Foster is its North East chairman.