No changes to Freedom of Information law, after outcry over fees

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Ministers have made clear there will be no major changes to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act after an outcry over potential curbs.

The Government said introducing routine fees for putting in requests would be "inappropriate" after an independent review found the legislation was "generally working well".

Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock said: "We will not make any legal changes to FOI.

We will spread transparency throughout public services, making sure all public bodies routinely publish details of senior pay and perks.

"After all, taxpayers should know if their money is funding a company car or a big pay-off."

The pledge came as the Independent Commission's report into the operation of FOI rules was published.

Praising the legislation for "enhancing openness and transparency", the body suggested some changes were needed to improve "clarity and certainty".

But the report said: "The Commission considers that there is no evidence that the Act needs to be radically altered, or that the right of access to information needs to be restricted.

"In some areas, the Commission is persuaded that the right of access should be increased. More generally, the Commission would like to see a significant reduction in the delays in the process whereby without good reason requests can go unresolved for several years.

"We have not been persuaded that there are any convincing arguments in favour of charging fees for requests and therefore we make no proposals for change."

The Hartlepool Mail campaigned against the proposed changes to the FOI Act and received support from local Labour MPs.

Grahame Morris, MP for Easington, said: "I believe we should build upon the current framework and should be opening up government to more scrutiny.

"In the last Parliament I tabled two Private Members' Bills calling for the extentsion of the FOI Act to include private companies and third parties operating within the NHS.

"I support going further, and believe the underlying principal should be that any organisation in receipt of public money should come under the scope of the FOI Act."

The Society of Editors (SoE), which ran a Hands Off FOI campaign, welcomed the news that there are to be no new restrictions added to the availability of information.

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the SoE, said: “We have welcomed what appears to be a partial victory. 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.”

Northeast Press editorial director Joy Yates is on the SoE board of directors and managing editor Gavin Foster is its North East chairman.