The Government's u-turn on FOI restrictions

Robert Verkaik, Law Editor of The Independent, writes: It is customary at this time of year to look back over the past 12 months to re-evaluate key moments that have shaped the political landscape. In the field of information rights it is the battle to force the Government to withdraw plans to restrict its own legislation that stands out.

At the turn of the year, Government forces, led by Lord Falconer of Thoroton, then Lord Chancellor, appeared determined to press ahead with new rules that would stop the media and campaign groups from making costly and embarrassing requests for information. By mid-spring there was strong cross-party opposition to the plans but Falconer and his ministerial colleagues showed no appetite for compromise. But then Jack Straw, the new Justice Secretary, seemed to lose his will for the fight. By October the whole debate had been turned on its head, with Gordon Brown suggesting that Freedom of Information laws could be extended to cover some private firms.

New documents released under the Freedom of Information Act now provide a clearer understanding of why the Government got cold feet.

Responses to its own consultation paper published last year include submissions from FOI officers who show themselves to be less than enthusiastic about the idea of "blanket aggregation", whereby a financial cap would be put on the amount of money that could be spent on complying with FOI requests made by individuals from within the same organisation.

For example, Transport for London (TfL) said: "We consider that the existing Fees Regulations are adequate in this regard and in general multiple unrelated requests from individual applicants, or different applicants in a single organisation, have not imposed an unacceptable burden on TfL." Such unexpected opposition to its plans might just have given the Government sufficient reasons to beat a hasty retreat.

Freedom Of Information Act: The Government battle to restrict Freedom of Information requests (The Independent, 14 December 2007)