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Information commissioner is told Freedom of Information is “broken”

More than 100 newspaper editors, MPs, journalists, celebrities and campaigners signed a letter calling on John Edwards to fix FOI.

Information commissioner is told Freedom of Information is “broken”
Peter Geoghegan: “As the British public is still being kept in the dark over Partygate, the importance of transparency has rarely been more obvious.” Photograph: Marcel Eberle on Unsplash.

The letter, coordinated by openDemocracy, highlighted growing concern about the state of Freedom of Information in Britain.

Last year, reports the NUJ, a British judge criticised the Cabinet Office for its “profound lack of transparency” after openDemocracy exposed the existence of a Freedom of Information (FOI) ‘clearing house’ in government, which was coordinating responses to requests from journalists and others. A parliamentary inquiry into the Clearing House was launched in July 2021 and is ongoing.

According to the NUJ, an analysis has shown 2020 to be the worst year on record for Freedom of Information in the UK, with just 41 per cent of requests made to central government granted in full.

The letter to John Edwards, who became the information commissioner in January 2022, says the “current regulatory approach to FOI is clearly not working”. It urges him to do more to keep the government accountable.

Signatories include: the editor of The Guardian, Katharine Viner; the Observer’s Paul Webster; senior Tory MP David Davis; the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas; shadow solicitor general Andy Slaughter and NUJ general secretary Michelle – along with a string of journalists, experts and campaign groups.

The letter says: “The accountability that FOI provides is in real danger of disappearing, which poses a threat to the long-term national interest of this country. It is time for fresh thinking and bold action to deliver FOI transparency in the public interest.”

It urges the information commissioner’s office to allocate more resources to investigating complaints about FOI. It also calls for clear protocols to be introduced to deal with authorities that have systemic patterns of poor transparency.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “The present delays in the FOI system can kill a time-sensitive story stone dead. It can take up to 18 months – or years especially if appeals are involved – to get full replies. This isn’t good enough. Journalists report that government departments can be obstructive and hide behind a culture of secrecy. FOIs are a useful tool for journalists to hold public bodies to account, but the system is broken and needs swifter action to be taken against those who break the time limits to replies. The Act also needs to be broadened out to include private companies running public services.”

Peter Geoghegan, editor-in-chief of openDemocracy, said: “As the British public is still being kept in the dark over Partygate, the importance of transparency has rarely been more obvious. At openDemocracy, we are constantly encountering public bodies and government departments which stonewall, delay and dodge Freedom of Information requests. As you can see from the huge range of signatories to the open letter, we are far from alone in having serious concerns about transparency. FOI is a key tool for holding public bodies to account but currently the Information Commissioner’s Office is not ensuring that the Freedom of Information Act delivers. We welcome the new information commissioner’s listening exercise and are keen to share our views on how FOI can be better policed.”

Katharine Viner, editor in chief, The Guardian said: “Journalism in the public interest often depends on freedom of information laws, which help the public understand the decisions made by the authorities. Such laws are essential to a well-functioning democracy. When the government fails to meet its transparency commitments, it is essential that the ICO is able to step in to make sure ministers and public bodies comply with the law.”

Read the full text of the letter here.


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