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FoI Act should be extended not watered-down say editors

FOIFreedom of Information laws should be extended rather than watered down, the Society of Editors has told a commission reviewing the legislation.

Today marks the deadline for submissions to the Government-appointed commission charged which is considering changes to the legislation, potentially including charges for FoI requests.

Earlier this week, HoldtheFrontPage submitted its own body of evidence in the shape of its archive of 204 stories on how regional newspapers have used the FoI Act.

Now the Society of Editors, which has spearheaded the ‘Hands Off FoI’ campaign with the support of HTFP and Press Gazette, has called for the Act to be strengthened, saying the default switch for the release of information should be switched from ‘off’ to ‘on.’

In its submission, executive director Bob Satchwell argues that FoI has “saved lives” by increasing transparency in public authorities.

“By exposing abuse of power, waste of money and official complacency it has improved governance at national and local levels, saved money and saved lives,” he said.

“There are thousands of examples of how the media, nationally and locally, has used the Act for the benefit of the public and indeed to improve transparency and the work of authorities covered by the Act.

“It is claimed that many FOI requests may be frivolous. This is not the case: the overwhelming majority from media organisations represent responsible journalism in the public interest.

“The real issue is that many official organisations remain committed to needless secrecy rather than transparency. Too often they take the easy option of telling the public as little as possible.

“In fact the easy – and correct – option should be to release as much information as possible unless there is an extremely good reason for it to remain confidential. Such reasons are usually a matter of common sense.

“The Society of Editors believes that Freedom of Information has greatly increased transparency in government and greatly benefited society. Now is not the time to shackle it. Instead, society should be considering how to build on the success of FOI.”

“The review should do all it can to turn the default switch for the release of information to ‘on’ rather than ‘off’. That would be a service to the public and indeed authorities which claim it costs too much to tell the public what is done in their name and with their money.’

Bob also voices concern that ministers already appear to have pre-judged the issue, citing the comments by Cabinet minister Chris Grayling that journalists’ using FoI to “create stories” amounted to “misuse” of the legislation.

And he described the possible introduction of charging for requests as a “major concern,” pointing out that in Ireland the imposition of charges led to a collapse in requests.

The Society’s submission can be read in full here.

They include council officers staking out a pub 40 times to see if it was breaking the no-smoking bam, the theft of 14,500 items from Norfolk premises by shopkeepers over a four-year period, and an otherwise secret report detailing the scale of staff problems at Norfolk and Suffolk’s mental health trust.