UK: Surprise! Commission recommends stronger Freedom of Information Act

by Sofie Luise Burger
On 01 March 2016, a commission installed by the British government to review the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has presented its findings. After several months of review, the commission now recommends to strengthen the law in several aspects.

The FOIA was introduced in 2005 and the possibilities it introduced were quite popular: in the last five years, about 300.000 requests have been submitted to the authorities. The information requests are usually free of charge and the authorities are legally obligated to answer within 20 business days; and the commissioner for freedom of information can impose sanctions for violations. With the help of the law, British journalists had been able to unveil several political scandals, including the United Kingdom parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009.

The news of a formal review of the FOIA had triggered a rather controversial debate during the last months: the main reason for the review seemed to be that too many information requests had been submitted, revealing political scandals and forcing a more transparent political culture. The members of the parliament showed ambitions to weaken the FOIA, since most requests were not made by "the normal people" but by journalists who were using the information "as a weapon" (quote by Tony Blair, former prime minister of the UK). The members of the committee, however, claimed that the sole purpose of the review of the law, introduced in 2005, was to see how its practical use had turned out over the last ten years. This statement was widely regarded as an excuse to water down the very successful law. It was feared, for example, that the information requests would no longer be free of charge.

Now, however, the commission introduced their findings, stating that the law served its purpose very well. The experts found that the nature of the FOIA did not agree with the introduction of a fee for information requests. Furthermore, the commission recommends that all answers of authorities should automatically be published online, just as several organisations publish the results of their requests on their websites.

In conclusion, the only changes postulated by the commission are aiming to strengthen the law instead of weakening it. This really comes as a surprise, especially since the members of the committee are known to be outright opponents of the freedom of information and have been criticized for their intransparent policies.

Sofie Luise Burger is a research associate at the Institute of European Media Law (EMR) in Saarbrucken/ Brussels.

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The report of the commission can be found here.