FOI Act not as effective as it could be

According to freelance journalist, James Ball, using the FOI Act can often be a frustrating process: "The act has been in force for three years this month. Though passed in 2000, it only came into force in January 2005. In theory, the act finally allows UK citizens to find out what public bodies are up to; in practice, it is a pale imitation of its US counterpart.

"The government has a whole raft of "exemptions" when it doesn't want to provide information. If a request would cost too much to uphold, it can be withheld; or if it's "vexatious" or repeated; and despite billions of pounds of public money being spent annually through the private sector, "commercially sensitive" information can be redacted (blacked out).

"Also exempt is information potentially prejudicial to the economy, to international relations, to internal relations within the UK, to crime detection and prevention, and to defence.
And just in case anything is not covered by the previous exemptions, anything prejudicial to the "effective conduct of public affairs" is out.

"When the Freedom of Information Act came into force, the now defunct Department of Constitutional Affairs set up a
clearing house to handle "complex requests". This clearing house "works closely with the Cabinet Office" to handle requests "intrinsic to the operation of collective responsibility, cabinet and the role of ministers; and those cases in which the prime minister takes personal interest".

"In practice, any tricky requests to central government are likely to end up here. The clearing house was
criticised by a Commons select committee in 2006, which said the it had to be more transparent and release statistics about requests it processed. The recommendations were rejected."

An open-and-shut case: Riddled with exceptions, exemptions and evasions, the Freedom of Information Act is a pale imitation of its US counterpart (The Guardian, 24 January 2008)