TODAY, as a powerful committee considers taking away your right to know what public authorities do in your name and with your taxes, we launch our campaign to keep the hands of the establishment off the Freedom of Information Act.
Since it came into operation in 2005 the Act has been used by ordinary people to expose safety concerns at a nuclear submarine base, a council which forked out thousands of pounds for its chief executive to drive a Porsche and the huge sums of money claimed in expenses by MPs.
The Oxford Mail has used the act to reveal that there were thousands of assaults on teachers in our schools and that private ambulance firms were given millions of pounds to take patients to hospital, as well as dozens of other issues the public would otherwise not have been told about.
But at the end of this month a commission set up by the Government will report back on its findings after reviewing the Act.
The commission, which includes a former Home Secretary who has openly criticised the Act and former reviewer of terrorism legislation Lord Carlile, is widely expected to recommend the Act is watered down. Many, including the Oxford Mail, believe that is wrong, which is why we are campaigning against attempts to strangle the Act’s powers.
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Oxford Mail editor Simon O’Neill said: “There is no doubt that there is a slow creep towards secrecy in many government departments and public bodies. The rise of legions of communications teams, who effectively act as nightclub bouncers for journalists seeking access to information, has made the Freedom of Information Act a key weapon in the armoury of any news organisation worth its salt. It is often our only way round the gatekeepers of information that the public has an absolute right to know.
“Now we are facing a suspiciously loaded and opaque commission which is ‘reviewing’ the Act. If you want a clue as to what direction it is heading in, the commission itself is not subject to the very Act it is reviewing and has even considered taking anonymous evidence.
“The man and woman in the street must realise that this is about their right to know, not that of a few journalists. And we’re not talking about state secrets here, but about how public bodies spend our cash and do the daily job we pay them to do.
“The Act is, if I am not mistaken, about to be severely curtailed and made subject to hefty charges, all because a few politicians who got caught fiddling their expenses and some well-remunerated Sir Humphreys see it as a pain in the proverbial butt. That must not be allowed to happen for the sake of a government and society that is truly open. This is our information, not theirs.”
Our campaign is backed by many other organisations including the Society of Editors, which launched its Hands Off FOI campaign earlier this year in association with journalism websites HoldtheFrontPage and Press Gazette.
HoldtheFrontPage editor Paul Linford said: “It is very clear from the make-up of the commission, which mainly comprises hardened opponents of FOI, that the Government is set on watering down the legislation.”
Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford said: “I think it’s absolutely fantastic that the Oxford Mail is getting behind the campaign so strongly.
“It has been incredibly dogged and diligent in the use of FoI over the years and local newspaper readers across the country would be far less informed if the changes to the Act take place.”
- Oxford Mail editor Simon O’Neill
The commission’s consultation into changes to the Act closes at midnight on Friday, November 20.
A petition supporting the Hands Off FOI campaign has already been signed by 22,400 people.
Oxford East MP Andrew Smith said he was opposed to attempts to weaken the Act.
He said: “I very strongly back the Oxford Mail’s campaign. It is crucial that the public have the right to know about information that affects their lives.”
Actor Michael Sheen has added his voice to calls for the Act to be protected. Sheen, who has portrayed former Prime Minister Tony Blair on screen, said: “Newspaper journalism, whether local or national, has used FOI to hold the Government to account on everything from MPs’ expenses to staff shortages in the NHS. It is an essential medium for making sense of the wealth of information which the Act provides access to.”
The Campaign for Freedom of Information fought to implement the Act from the 1980s onwards and is now campaigning to stop it being weakened.
Maurice Frankel from the group said: “Signing the petition is the easiest thing to do but if people can they should write to their MP and tell them what a difference the FOI Act has made.”
An FOI commission spokesperson said: “Freedom of Information is an area of considerable public interest and we want to hear the views of as many people as possible, which is why we have announced this public call for evidence.
“The Commission is an independent body, with no pre-determined view, and is interested in gathering as much objective evidence as possible on the questions posed in the call for evidence”.
* The Hands Off FOI petition can be signed at change.org/p/matthew-hancock-mp-don-t-weaken-the-freedom-of-information-act