Massive concern over restrictions on Freedom of information

Press-ECPMF

09 February 2021

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Many media freedom campaigns and campaigners fear the British government is abusing the Freedom of Information (FOI) system, using delaying tactics and prioritising FOI requests from government-friendly journalists and media outlets. We join them in urging politicians to respect the UK’s Freedom of information Act and allow journalists to do their job of holding power to account.

To:

The Right Honourable William Wragg MP, Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

The Right Honourable Julian Knight MP, Chair, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

cc:

The Right Honourable Michael Gove, ​Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office

The Right Honourable Chloe Smith, Minister for the Cabinet Office

Dunja Mijatovic, Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner

Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression

Elizabeth Denham, UK Information Commissioner

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, UK Foreign Office

Kanbar Hossein Bor, UK Foreign Office

 

We are writing to you to raise serious concerns about the difficulties that journalists, researchers and members of the public currently experience when trying to use FOI legislation, across government.

As you know, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 sets standards for openness and transparency from government, and is a critical tool for ensuring that journalists and members of the public can scrutinise the workings of government.

We have, however, become increasingly concerned about the way in which the legislation is being interpreted and implemented. As the new openDemocracy report Art of Darkness makes clear, FOI response rates are at the lowest level since the introduction of the Act 20 years ago.

The report also points to increasing evidence of poor practices across government, such as the use of ‘administrative silence’ to stonewall requests.

In addition, it was recently reported that the Cabinet Office is operating a ‘Clearing House’ unit in which FOI responses are centrally coordinated, undermining the applicant-blind principle of the Act. This raises serious questions about whether information requests by journalists and researchers are being treated and managed differently.

The new report also shows that the regulator charged with implementing

Freedom of Information legislation – the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – has seen its budget cut by 41 per cent over the last decade while its FOI complaint caseload has increased by 46 per cent in the same period.

We believe that there are now strong grounds for a review of the UK government’s treatment of and policies for dealing with Freedom of Information requests, and would urge the minister to address these concerns. We urge you to take the following steps as a matter of priority:

  1. Open an inquiry into the operation of the Clearing House, which comprehensively investigates whether its operation is

GDPR-compliant, whether journalists and other users of the Act are being monitored and/or blacklisted, and whether this is illegal and/or undermines the applicant-blind principle of the Act.

  1. Consider the merits of introducing an ‘administrative silence’ rule whereby a failure to respond to a request within the requisite time period is deemed to be a refusal and can be appealed in full to the ICO.
  2. Recognise the national interest of an independent and fully funded regulator of information rights by considering the ICO’s critical lack of funding, and making the regulator accountable to and funded by parliament.

Despite recommendations from the ICO, the government has also declined to expand the FOI Act to cover public contracts to private firms – and has failed to deliver on its own pledges to increase the proactive publication of contracting data.

Given the recent National Audit Office report’s criticism about the lack of transparency in government COVID contracting, it is high time that this recommendation was followed through – and that further measures as outlined above are taken to protect and strengthen the public’s right to access information.

Yours,

Mary Fitzgerald, Editor in Chief, openDemocracy

Katharine Viner, Editor in Chief, The Guardian

John Witherow, Editor, The Times

Emma Tucker, Editor, The Sunday Times

Chris Evans, Editor, The Daily Telegraph

Roula Khalaf, Editor, The Financial Times

Alison Phillips, Editor, Daily Mirror

Paul Dacre, Editor-in-Chief, Associated Newspapers, former Editor, Daily Mail

Alan Rusbridger, former Editor in Chief, The Guardian

Lionel Barber, former Editor, Financial Times

Veronica Wadley, Chair of Arts Council London; former Editor, Evening

Standard

Ian Hislop, Editor, Private Eye

David Davis MP

Alex Graham, Chair of the Scott Trust

Ian Murray, Executive Director, Society of Editors

Sir Alan Moses, former Chair, IPSO

Anne Lapping CBE, former Deputy Chair, IPSO

Philip Pullman, author

Baroness Janet Whitaker

Baroness Tessa Blackstone

Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser

Ruth Smeeth, Chief Executive, Index on Censorship

Daniel Bruce, Chief Executive, Transparency International

Daniel Gorman, Director, English PEN

Menna Elfyn, President of Wales PEN Cymru

Carl MacDougall, President of Scottish PEN

Rebecca Vincent, Director of International Campaigns, Reporters Without Borders

Michelle Stanistreet, General Secretary, National Union of Journalists

Sian Jones, President, National Union of Journalists

Jodie Ginsberg, Chief Executive Officer, Internews Europe

John Sauven, Executive Director, Greenpeace

Jonathan Heawood, Public Interest News Foundation

Anthony Barnett, Founding Dir​ector, Charter 88

Suzanna Taverne, Chair, openDemocracy

Chris Blackhurst, former Editor, The Independent

Rachel Oldroyd, Managing Editor, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Peter Jukes and Stephen Colegrave, Executive Editors, Byline Times

Philippe Sands QC

George Peretz QC

David Leigh, ​investigative journalist

Robert Peston, journalist and author Peter Oborne, journalist and author

Nick Cohen, journalist and author

David Aaronovitch, journalist and author Michael Crick, journalist and author

Ian Cobain, investigative journalist

Tom Bower, investigative journalist

Carole Cadwalladr, journalist

Aditya​ Chakrabortty, Senior Economics Commentator, The Guardian

Jason Beattie, Assistant Editor, the Daily Mirror

Rowland Manthorpe, ​Technology Correspondent, Sky News

Cynthia O’Murchu, Investigative Reporter, Financial Times

Tom Warren, Investigative Reporter, BuzzFeed News

Christopher Hird, Founder and Managing Director, Dartmouth Films

Meirion Jone​s, Investigations Editor, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

James Ball, Global Editor, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Oliver Bullough, journalist and author

Henry Porter, journalist and author

Peter Geoghegan, Investigations Editor, openDemocracy

Margot Gibbs, Senior Reporter, Finance Uncovered

Lionel Faull, Chief Reporter, Finance Uncovered

Chris Cook, Contributing editor, Tortoise

Brian Cathcart, Professor of Journalism, ​Kingston University

Mark Cridge, Chief Executive, mySociety

Dr Susan Hawley, Executive Director, Spotlight on Corruption

Helen Darbishire, Executive Director, Access Info Europe

Miriam Turner and Hugh Knowles, co-CEOs, Friends of the Earth

Mike Davis, Executive Director, Global Witness

Silkie Carlo, Director, Big Brother Watch

Natalie Fenton, Professor of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London

Dr Lutz Kinkel, the Managing Director of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

Scott Griffen, Deputy Director of International Press Institute

Granville Williams, Editor, Media North

Alison Moore, journalist and editor

Tim Go​psil, Former Editor, Free Press and the Journalist magazine

Dave West, Deputy Editor, Health Services Journal

Dr Sam Raphael, Director, UK Unredacted and University of Westminster

Leigh Baldwin and Marcus Leroux, SourceMaterial

Vicky Cann, Corporate Europe Observatory

Barnaby Pace, Senior Campaigner, Global Witness

Lisa Clark, Scottish PEN Project Manager

Nick Craven, journalist

Caroline Molloy, Editor, openDemocracy UK

Jenna Corderoy, Investigative Reporter, openDemocracy

Jamie Beagent, Partner, Leigh Day

Sean Humber, Partner, Leigh Day

Harminder Bains, Partner, Leigh Day

Thomas Jervis, Partner, Leigh Day

Oliver Holland, Partner, Leigh Day

Merry Varney, Partner, Leigh Day

Daniel Easton, Partner, Leigh Day

Michael Newman, Partner, Leigh Day

Sarah Campbell, Partner, Leigh Day

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