Maurice Frankel: The FoI was an achievement its creators now want to undermine

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There is little doubt that new powers which came into force two years ago have influenced Whitehall thinking, but ministers seem intent on bringing in changes that could undermine their own achievements.

There also appears to be some evidence that decisions are being taken on the basis of the sensitivity of the information being requested, rather than what is in the public interest. Certainly a high proportion of requests to central government are refused on the the ground that disclosure would be exempt because it would hinder the formulation of government policy.

The drop in the numbers of requests made by members of the public may just be the legislation settling down, or it may be people's growing experience that they aren't getting what they are asking for. But the new proposals under consultation do seem to go against the spirit of the Freedom of Information [FoI] Act 2000. Requests could be refused, regardless of their merits, once a certain number of hours of official time have been clocked up.

The draft regulations make no distinction between obscure requests of purely private interest and those of overriding public importance. This approach strikes at the heart of the FoI Act, which is that the basis for decisions should be the public interest, not authorities' interests.

The government consultation document acknowledges that the requesters most likely to be affected would be journalists, MPs, campaign groups and researchers - precisely those people who contribute to public debate. Requests on subjects such as identity cards, the Olympics or the war in Iraq might be refused out of hand in future because the number of hours needed to think about and discuss them exceeded some arbitrary threshold.

A journalist asking the Home Office for information about, say, prison escapes, could use up most of the £600 limit in one go. Any subsequent request to the Home Office from any of the paper's journalists could be refused, whether it dealt with immigration, policing, drugs, passports, anti-social behaviour orders, race relations, equal opportunities, animal experimentation, DNA testing or airport security.

Maurice Frankel is director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information

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