FOI powers to be extended despite LGA opposition

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) will have its powers extended rather than limited despite opposition from local councils, an independent commission into the Act has ruled.

The 2000 Act requires public bodies to disclose any information they hold to members of the public who ask for it within 20 working days, subject to limitations such as cost, data protection and protection of commercial and state secrets.

The Local Government Association (LGA) submitted evidence to the commission suggesting limitations to the Act, including increased protection for sensitive information, making information conditional on the applicant providing a public interest justification, and reducing the time limit beyond which an applicant has to pay for information.

However, the Commission on Freedom of Information’s final report lays out a number of recommendations to make the Act stronger, including legislation to tackle time delays beyond 20 days, to strengthen the Information Commissioner’s power to prosecute people if they tamper with information requested by the Act, and to mandate the publication of request responses and compliance statistics. It also recommends greater transparency on senior executive pay and benefits in public bodies.

In a written statement to Parliament Matt Hancock MP, the Cabinet Office minister, said: “The Freedom of Information Act is one of the pillars on which open government operates. We are committed to supporting the Act.”

It has been known that Hancock supports the Act in its present form since Cabinet Office sources told the Times in December that he didn’t plan on making any changes.

The LGA declined to comment when approached by PSE.

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham said: “We welcome the fact that the Commission has adopted some of the ideas put forward by the Information Commissioner in evidence, particularly his call to also consider improvements to the Act - such as clarifying the extension to the time limit, and also the Commission's call for strengthened powers and better resourcing for the ICO.”

Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson, who set up a cross-party committee to examine the FOI, said: “I’m delighted that Matthew Hancock has decided the FOIA is ‘working well’. Labour has been making the same point for many months.

“We believe the Act should be extended to cover private sector companies that win public sector contracts and we will continue to make that case.”

(Image c. Dominic Lipinski from PA Wire)


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