An independent commission looking into the Freedom of Information Act has said that there is “no evidence that the Act needs to be radically altered” – in a report published this week.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 is commonly used by journalists to request information from public bodies and the government. Previous FOI requests revealed letters Prince Charles had sent to government and the MPs expenses scandal.
Matthew Hancock, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, said in the report’s foreword that the act was “generally working well” and that “it has enhanced openness and transparency”.
In a call for written evidence, the commission received more than 30,000 responses. These included 693 responses from individuals, 29,394 responses from the online petitions website, 38 degrees, and 172 responses from organisations – of which 20 were from the media industry.
Amongst the report’s 21 recommendations, the commission said that a public body should be allowed a maximum of 20 working days to respond to someone filing for an internal review about the way an organisation handled their request.
The same amount of time was suggested – on top of the first 20 working days to respond – with regards to a public body deciding whether disclosing the requested information would be in the public interest.
The report says: “We recommend that instead of public authorities being able to extend the deadline for answering a request by an uncapped period while they consider the public interest, that this is limited to a statutory period of 20 working days.”
As well as this, the report also considers whether public bodies should charge a fee for processing FOI requests, after some organisations have considered such requests as being a ‘burden’.
According to media companies who submitted evidence, the implementation of a fee “would be particularly onerous for media organisations who make a large number of requests”.
In response to this aspect of the review, the commission said: “We recognise in particular that some use of the Act by the media gives rise to some very important investigations that are clearly in the public interest, and that a fee for information requests could hamper those investigations in future.”
Alongside these recommendations, the 58-page report also details recommendations regarding exemptions and the appeal process. These include a government veto against certain requests, removing the first-tier tribunal stage of the appeals process, and defining what is meant by a ‘vexatious’ request.
Under Section 14 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, a public body can refuse a request if it is ‘vexatious’. Whilst the term is never defined in the original act, the commission has since suggested that a request is vexatious if it is obsessive, lacks any serious purpose or value, causes distress or annoyance, or “[imposes] a significant burden in terms of expense and distraction”.
Whilst the document may provide reassurance to national news organisations, student journalists are relieved to find out that the commission suggests that universities are not exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
It says: “The opinion of the Commission is that it continues to be appropriate and important for universities to remain subject to the Act.
“We found the evidence that the requirements of the Act placed ‘public’ universities at a competitive disadvantage compared with wholly private providers unpersuasive.”
Meanwhile Matt Burgess, journalist for Wired and author of Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists, said that universities should not receive “any special treatment” under the Freedom of Information Act.
He said: “It would be very damaging for student media and the accountability of universities because these bodies receive a huge amount of public funding and it is part of a journalist’s role – whether they’re a student journalist or any sort of journalist – to be able to scrutinise and ask for information under the act.
“If the act did not apply to universities it would be very damaging in terms of being able to find out expenses that have been paid to Vice Chancellors, to members of staff and a whole range of information that’s in the public interest.”