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MPs and editors sound alarm over threat to Freedom of Information

Government secrecy and trend for departments to block Freedom of Information requests pose a long-term risk to accountability

Journalists, campaigners, MPs and celebrities have signed an open letter to the UK’s information commissioner, calling for stricter rules against government secrecy.

The letter, to information commissioner John Edwards, appointed in January 2022, warns that the current Freedom of Information (FOI) regulations are failing.

Government departments are responding to FOI requests from the public with late responses, stonewalling, and the misuse of exemptions, the letter states.

Combined with opaque and inconsistent monitoring and enforcement, the current regulatory approach to FOI “is clearly not working”, says the letter.

“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 says. “It is time for fresh thinking and bold action to deliver FOI transparency in the public interest.”

More than 100 people have signed the letter, including Katharine Viner, editor in chief of The Guardian; Paul Webster, editor of The Observer; and senior Tory MP David Davis.

The Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, shadow solicitor general Andy Slaughter and comedian Joe Lycett, along with journalists, experts and campaign groups, have also added their names to the letter.

The open letter, co-ordinated by openDemocracy, comes amid growing concern about the state of FOI in the UK.

Last year, a judge criticised the Cabinet Office for its “profound lack of transparency” over the operation of a Cabinet Office clearing house accused of “blacklisting” FOI requests from journalists, campaigners and others.

2020 was the worst year on record for FOI in the UK, with just 41% of requests made to central government granted in full.

The letter urges Edwards, who has begun a listening exercise, to do more to keep the government accountable. It urges the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to allocate more resources to investigating complaints about FOI.

It also asks for “clear protocols” to be introduced to deal with government bodies that systematically show poor transparency.

The ICO’s latest annual report shows that the backlog of casework during the Covid-19 pandemic is causing significant new delays.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information reports that it currently takes 12 months to open an investigation into some complaints.

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The letter asks the ICO to publish data on its FOI casework to allow requesters to understand the size of the backlog and the progress made in addressing it.

The letter raises concerns that the information commisioner has recommended the “removal” of the First Tier Information Tribunal, which hears complaints from requesters who have been denied information.

“While there is merit in reducing the opportunities for obstructive authorities to introduce new arguments and delays, we are concerned about a potential reduction in accountability,” the letter says.

Edwards said he recognised “the concern around timely access to information, and addressing this is a priority”.

He said the ICO would take part in discussions about modernising FOI, “though discussions about law reform are for minister and parliament to make”.

Viner said FOI laws “are essential to a well-functioning democracy”, adding: “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.”

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.

“FOI is a key tool for holding public bodies to account, but currently the ICO is not ensuring that the Freedom of Information Act delivers.”

National Union of Journalists general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said FOI is 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 reply,” she said. “The Act also needs to be broadened out to include private companies running public services.”

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