Full Credit to openDemocracy
"Wow - more than 40,000 of you have backed our call to save Freedom of Information (FOI)!
Thanks to you, the pressure is working. In a rare show of unity today, rival British newspapers editors have all signed our open letter to MPs demanding ‘urgent’ steps to protect FOI, as a key pillar of press freedom.
This is huge: it means ministers have to start listening.
The letter is addressed to MPs on the influential Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. It demands a swift investigation into government handling of FOI requests, plus new measures to speed up FOI responses and enforcement.
Will you add your name, and email our letter to MPs too?
The more noise we make, the faster they have to act. Already, Labour has proposed a robust new FOI law – and MPs from all parties are backing our call.
All you need to do is copy the text of the open letter below into a new email, add your name to the bottom, and send it to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee using this email address: email@example.com
Together, we can keep the momentum going and force MPs to act.
Thank you so much,
Peter Geoghegan, Investigations editor, openDemocracy"
The open letter
Dear Sir or Madam,
I am 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.
I 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% over the last decade while its FOI complaint caseload has increased by 46% in the same period.
I 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. I 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.