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FoI charges would ‘strangle investigations at birth’ says PA boss

Pete CliftonThe boss of Britain’s national news agency has told the commission looking into charging for freedom of information requests that the move would “strangle” many important investigations at birth.

Pete Clifton, left, editor in chief of the Press Association, was giving evidence to the government-appointed panel looking into the workings of the FoI Act.

He cited a case in which the agency had used FoI to discover that the UK’s 45 police forces had between them lost trace of 396 registered sex offenders.

Pete said the information would never have come to light had the agency faced charges for making the multiple requests.

Said Pete: “There has been a suggestion that the public, charities and media should be charged for making FoI requests. Hardly a great calling card for openness, and at a stroke numerous important investigations would be strangled at birth.”

Below are his opening remarks to the commission in full.

Good afternoon. I’m Peter Clifton, the editor-in-chief of the Press Association, or PA as it is widely known. We are the national news agency of the UK and Ireland, providing hundreds of news reports, pictures, videos and graphics to customers in this country and abroad, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The customer base is very broad, covering all the main UK broadcasters, national and regional newspapers, and an enormous range of websites.

PA is a passionate supporter of the Freedom of Information Act, and has regularly used it in a responsible way to provide insightful journalism to our many customers – journalism that has on occasion been raised in Parliament, prompted reviews of CPS guidelines and highlighted gaps in the understanding of important data. I will be happy to outline more detail around these in due course.

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to speak today, and would stress that, along with Bob, I am also here to represent a united view across the UK media.

PA shares the widely aired concerns about the make-up of the commission and regrets the lack of anyone representing the media industry and investigative journalism, bringing a more positive view of some of the many benefits the FOI Act has delivered to increase transparency around government and public bodies.

We also believe the questions the commission is considering – predominantly around the burden and controls of the FOI Act – suggest a remit based on reining in the act rather than looking at how it could be further strengthened to support the government’s apparent commitment to “greater transparency”.

On costs, we hear concerns about the money spent on meeting FOI requests. And yet close examination of the numbers would suggest they are microscopic amounts of money compared to overall budgets – fractions of one per cent for government and councils. This does not seem like a high price to pay – this is, after all, public money that is being spent to give the public greater transparency around the institutions they are paying for. And, of course, the amounts spent on FOI requests are significantly less than government and councils spend on their own PR and official communication channels.

On the other hand, there has been a suggestion that the public, charities and media should be charged for making FOI requests. Hardly a great calling card for openness, and at a stroke numerous important investigations would be strangled at birth. Many of the PA’s most telling FOI reports involve multiple requests – for example, asking the UK’s 45 police forces how many registered sex offenders they had lost trace of. The answer was a startling 396 – some for more than a decade. But an answer that may never have been revealed had it cost more than a thousand pounds to make such a multiple request.

Our over-arching view, and one shared by the Information Commissioner, is that the FOI process works. Sections 35 and 36 of the act already provide adequate safeguards. Vexatious inquiries can be blocked, and the “safe space” so beloved of cabinet ministers and their advisors is most often upheld by the Information Commissioner.

There seems a lack of clear evidence that there has been any “chilling effect” on civil servants in their dealings with ministers, but many, including the Information Commissioner, the Justice Select Committee and the former Head of the Civil Service, have rejected this notion.

It is our view that the FOI Act has provided invaluable support for an open democracy over the past decade, and far from clipping its wings, the remit of the act should be extended to include private contractors like G4S, Serco and Capita, who receive billions of pounds of public money every year and should surely be subject to greater scrutiny.

The final point is about the public. Millions of them read the FOI-based reports written by PA and many other media organisations. They provide billions of pounds every year to fund our government and councils. If you took the time to gather their views on this vital democratic issue, it is hard to imagine any member of the public supporting further controls on access to information that should be in the public domain.

The sad fact is that the vast majority of the public will have no idea this commission is taking place to evaluate how much information should be made available to them.

If we are genuinely striving to have the most transparent government in the world, our institutions should be readily making more data available – where openness is the default, not secrecy – and underpinned by a strong, responsibly run FOI Act of which we can all be proud.

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  • January 25, 2016 at 4:39 pm

    Problem with all this is that it presumes a government wants openness, which it doesn’t.

    I note the commons recently destroyed all pre 2010 expenses claims.

    Erm, good luck though!

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