Government review of FoI criticised as 'a step back' that could 'water down' the Act

Controversial review is perceived as a bid to limit information freedom laws

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A body set up by creator of the World Wide Web Sir Tim Berners-Lee has attacked the UK Government for claiming it was dedicated to transparency while announcing its decision to review the Freedom of Information Act.

The World Wide Web Foundation criticised the Government for justifying its review of information freedom laws by citing the UK’s position at the top of the Foundation’s prestigious Open Data Barometer – an annual worldwide survey of open government.

The controversial review is widely perceived as a bid by the Government and Whitehall to limit information freedom laws and its ability to hold them to account. Anne Jellema, chief executive of the World Wide Web Foundation, said: “We were frustrated to learn the UK Government has used its ranking in our Open Data Barometer (ODB) in an effort to justify a move that could water down the Freedom of Information Act.”

She said the ODB measures the supply, use and impact of data in ways which can help the public and stressed “it is not a comprehensive measure of government openness in the broader sense”.

“The UK’s first place ranking should not be an excuse to undo progress. The fact the UK Government is taking a step back when the UK still lags behind many other European countries on important measures of transparency and accountability, such as limits to state surveillance powers, and press freedom, is of great concern,” she added.

Her comments echoed a call by Maurice Frankel, of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, for at least one review panel member with a proven commitment to information freedom to be appointed. Critics claim the six-person panel set up to review the information freedom law’s operation include civil servants and former ministers who are already “biased” against it and who will make it easier for bodies covered by the law to reject requests for information.

Welsh Labour MP Wayne David told the Commons on Monday night: “The impression has been given that this is a cross-party review. Labour has not been consulted, we are not represented on it and we don’t want to see any watering down of the Freedom of Information Act.” Robert Barrington, executive director of anti-corruption campaigners Transparency International UK, called for a “properly independent review” of the law.

“There should be a proper consultation with those who support the Act, not simply a result that reflects the opinions of those who have always opposed it,” he added. “Ultimately, it is hard to see how weakening the Act fits with the Prime Minister’s stated objective that the UK should be ‘the most open and transparent government in the world’.”

The influential campaign group 38 Degrees today launched a petition against any watering down of the law. “The government wants to restrict FoI laws that help citizens expose dodgy lobbyists, poor government decisions and threats to public safety. They’re desperate to water down our right to hold them to account. While only a few of us may have ever made a request using the laws – they have the power to affect us all.” It has already attracted nearly 3,000 signatures.

The Green Party’s justice spokesperson, Charley Pattison said: “Any further restrictions [on the FoI Act] will most likely be to protect politicians rather than the public.”