23 October 2006

The Lord Chancellor is planning to bring in new regulations which would mean the virtual repeal of the Freedom of Information Act. The new regulations are intended to prevent organisations such as Benefits and Work, or even concerned individuals, from getting access to information that the government would prefer to keep secret. Benefits and Work is asking members and supporters to check whether their MP has signed an early day motion objecting to the changes and, if they haven't fax them and ask them to do so.

Two changes
Lord Falconer is proposing two changes to the law, in spite of the fact that a recent report by Constitutional affairs Committee in June of this year found that the current regime is working very well and doesn't require altering. The changes are allegedly required to reduce costs, but a leaked memo from Lord Falconer shows that the real purpose is to allow "the most difficult requests (generally received from determined and experienced requesters) to be refused on cost grounds".

At present, if the cost of responding to any single request to a government department is more than £600 the request will be refused on cost grounds. The first change proposed by lord Falconer will allow government departments such as the DWP to aggregate the costs of all the requests from any one organisation, individual or connected individuals when assessing the cost. This means that if Benefits and Work has several requests in at the same time the DWP will be able to refuse them all on the grounds of cost.

According to Freedom of Information campaigner Maurice Frankel The move would particularly hit the press, as well as campaigning groups and MPs, Mr Frankel said:

"Newspapers would be forced to limit themselves to one or two requests to a government department a quarter. A regional paper covering the work of a local authority might be allowed one request every few months. It would barely be worth their while learning how to use the Act at all".

The second change alters the way that costs are calculated. At the moment the time taken to search for and collate information can be taken into account, but not the cost of deciding whether to release the information. Lord Falconer intends, however, to allow any time required to decide whether or not to release the information - including the exceedingly expensive cost of top civil servants and government ministers' time - to be included in the calculation. Thus, any request the DWP did not wish to grant could be refused on the grounds that it would be necessary to decide whether it was in the public interest to release it and the cost of making this decision would be too great.

It's your MP
There is something you can do. When the government previously raised the possibility of charging for Freedom of Information requests an Early Day motion condemning the move was signed by 180 MPs and it was quietly dropped.

The government has clearly prepared the ground more carefully this time and it will take more than 180 MPs to force them to back down. Nonetheless an EDM has been created and has already been signed by 93 MPs. You can read a list of the MPs who have already signed here.

If your MP isn't on it please use the excellent Write to them service to fax your MP and to ask them to sign it as a matter of urgency.

We're not going to offer a standard form letter for fear that MPs will ignore it if they receive several very similar texts. The main thing is that you ask your MP to sign Early Day Motion 2699 Freedom of Information and explain very briefly why you think it is important to keep the law as it is. It's not just Benefits and Work, but every campaigning organisation - such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth - which stands to lose out if Lord Falconer gets his way.

If they haven't signed within the week get back to them and ask them what it is about citizens having access to information that they find so threatening.


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