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Changes to Freedom of Information Bill announced

The Home Office has announced that the power of the Information Commissionerwill be strengthened by amendments to the Freedom of Information Bill to betabled by the Government.

This announcement follows pressure from many regional daily papers – including the Nottingham Evening Post who predicted a week ago that this change would be made. To see our earlier story on this click here

The Society of Editors – which has been a fierce opponent of increased secrecy – welcomed the “small step in the right direction” but said pressure must be maintained for further changes if a coherent and comprehensive Freedom of Information Act was to be achieved.

SoE Director Bob Satchwell said: “Even with the amendments, ministers andlocal politicians would still be able to close down information. Thecommissioner could demand disclosure and then be overruled by a minister orcouncillor.”

“Openness will not be achieved if government retains the right to decide ondisclosure. This is a small step in the right direction, but if ministersmean what they say they should listen to the reasoned arguments which showup the serious flaws in the Bill.

“If they mean business about empowering the public by giving theminformation they have a right to know, ministers should make sure there is apresumption in favour of openness at the top of the Bill and remove the hugenumber of exemptions that give too many public bodies a get-out.”

The Home Office said the amendments would:

  • create a statutory requirement for public authorities to discloseinformation whenever they believe that, on balance, public interestwould be served by disclosure;
  • empower the Information Commissioner to demand that publicauthorities disclose information when the authority has not done so,and the Commissioner believes that disclosure would be in the publicinterest;
  • only allow the public authority not to comply with the Commissionerif a Minister or local councillor certifies, within 20 days, that itis their opinion that the public authority’s decision was correct.

Announcing the Government amendment, Home Office Minister MikeO’Brien said: “The Bill would, with these amendments, substantially increasethe power of the Information Commissioner. Unless a certificate isprovided by a Minister or local councillor supporting an authority’sdecision not to disclose information, any public authority which doesnot comply with the Commissioner’s command to release informationwould face proceedings for contempt of court.

“The Freedom of Information Bill is an important part of theGovernment’s constitutional reform agenda, which is designed tomodernise Britain and make it a better place to live.”

Under the current draft of the Bill, the disclosure of informationby a public authority under Clause 13 would be entirely at the publicauthority’s discretion. The public authority would only be requiredto consider whether disclosure would be in the public interest.

Ministers may certify that non-Ministerial Government departmentsand non-departmental public bodies are not required to comply withthe Commissioner’s ruling to disclose information, whereas a localcouncillor, or a committee or sub-committee of a council, maycertify that local government bodies are not required to comply withthe Commissioner’s ruling.

The Freedom of Information Bill, the Local Government Bill, the TerrorismBill and other threats to the public’s right to know will be debated at theSociety of Editors Spring Seminar at Warwick University on May 3.

To visit the Society of Editors website click here

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