Freedom of Information Act fails to deliver

The Independent takes a critical look at the effectiveness (or lack of) of the UK's Freedom of Information Act. The view is that the Act is not functioning as we were led to expect and we are not living in a new era of open government as was promised by ministers: "New figures show that half of all requests to central government departments are now being refused. It is impossible to believe that all these are for information that would compromise national security, impede the functioning of government or trample an individual's right to privacy. We can, however, well imagine that much of it might embarrass or shame those in power."

The Independent also voices concerns about the delays over official responses: the FOI Act stipulates that authorities should reply within 20 days, yet 10 per cent of all requests made to central government are answered late. Similarly, delays caused by the backlog of cases with the Information Commissioner are also causing problems: the Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee criticised Richard Thomas for failing to rule on appeals quickly enough - some applicants have had to wait for more than a year to hear his adjudication and the backlog of cases is growing.

One of many examples of excessive government secrecy involved a request for MPs' salaries: "In September the Commons Speaker, Michael Martin, vetoed a request for the names and salaries of MPs' staff paid for by the taxpayer to be made public, despite a ruling by the Commissioner that there were no legitimate grounds for withholding the information. Parliament has sadly failed to prove itself a consistent champion of freedom of information."

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, has attacked government proposals to amend the FOI Act: "new proposals under consultation do seem to go against the spirit of the Freedom of Information [FoI] Act 2000. Requests could be refused, regardless of their merits, once a certain number of hours of official time have been clocked up."

The Independent reports that next month the government is going to court to try to prevent the public using the FOI Act to obtain even innocuous information about the formulation of policy after the Information Commissioner ruled that ministers must reveal material that does not harm policy-making: "Government lawyers are to appear before the Information Tribunal in an attempt to have the commissioner's decision overturned by arguing that all policy-related information must be withheld."

Examples of refused requests include: the public cost of guarding Charles and Camilla, documents and briefing papers for Lord Levy's meetings with American diplomats over the Middle East crisis, correspondence between the Food Standards Agency and Cadbury Schweppes in respect of the chocolate bar salmonella scare earlier this year, the minutes of Margaret Thatcher's last cabinet meeting, all the documents, memos and e-mails supporting the Attorney General's advice on the legality of the war in Iraq, Home Office reports on the impact of its plans for compulsory ID cards, documents relating to the policy discussions for the future funding of Britain's schools.

What freedom of information? Ministers are accused of scuppering right-to-know legislation (The Independent, 28 December 2006)

The age of openness ends before it has begun (The Independent, 28 December 2006)

Maurice Frankel: The FoI was an achievement its creators now want to undermine (The Independent, 28 December 2006)