The minister in charge of the review of the Freedom of Information Act has confirmed that there will be no changes to the legislation.
Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock established a commission last July to look into the workings of the Act which was widely expected to recommend that it should be watered-down.
But Mr Hancock has now confirmed that the government will not be making changes to the Act, which he said was “working well.”
Mr Hancock said: “After 10 years we took the decision to review the Freedom of Information Act and we have found it is working well.”
On the issue of charges for FoI requests, he added: “We appreciate that some public authorities are concerned by the burdens imposed on them by the Act and the associated costs.
“However, the introduction of new fees would lead to a reduction in the ability of requesters, especially the media, to make use of the Act. We believe that transparency can help save taxpayers’ money, by driving out waste and inefficiency.”
Initially, the review had been expected to recommend the introduction of charges for FoI requests and new exemptions from the scope of the Act, although in the event the comission’s final report published today came out against charging.
The Leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling infamously claimed at one stage that journalists were “misusing” the Act in order to “generate stories for the media,” a practice which he condemned as “unacceptable”
However it became clear that the government had got “cold feet” over the issue when it emerged that ministers had not submitted any evidence to their own review.
A senior Tory minister reportedly said in December: “Nobody in the government wants to touch this now, it’s a very hot political potato.”
Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, described the government’s move as a “partial victory.”
He said: “Ministers have quite rightly backed away from restrictions to the Freedom of Information Act and have pledged to spread transparency throughout public services.
“A powerful case was made during the Review for extending the Act and cultural change is certainly required but that is difficult to achieve.
“We must maintain the campaign to change the default switch from tell them nothing unless forced to one where public bodies release information which the public is entitled to have unless there is an exceptional reason for withholding it.”
SoE president Nick Turner added: “It is certainly good news that the Government appears to be ruling out changes to the Freedom of Information Act after the campaign fought by regional newspapers along with the rest of the industry and the Society of Editors.
“A Hands Off FoI petition launched by the Society gained 43,000 signatures so ministers were in no doubt about how strongly people felt about the right to know what councils and other bodies do in our name and with our money.
“During the campaign the regional press quite rightly highlighted how the Freedom of Information Act had been used by its journalists to uncover waste and inefficiencies in public bodies as well as crimes and social trends that would have otherwise gone unreported.
“It is regrettable that councils and other bodies saw this consultation to call for a tax on journalism and restrictions on the right to know and we must ensure the campaign continues to ensure nothing is done to undermine FoI.”
Peter Clifton, editor-in-chief of the Press Association, said: “We are absolutely delighted that the FOI Act has escaped legal changes, and that the commission found it is was working well.
“PA regularly uses the FOI Act, and it is a vital tool for us to hold our public institutions to account. We look forward to using it for more ground-breaking journalism in the future.”
As part of the HandsOffFoi campaign, HTFP submitted its entire archive of stories dating back to 2007 as evidence of how local journalists have used the Act in the public interest.
Publisher Paul Linford said: “We’re obviously delighted by this outcome and pleased to have played our part in maintaining the FoI Act as an essential tool for journalists.”