Which? has strongly criticised proposed changes to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that would make it much harder for campaigning organisations to request information from government bodies.
The proposed changes are to be discussed at an oral session of the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) Select Committee tomorrow.
Government departments can already reject FOIA requests that cost more than £600 to investigate. Under the proposed changes, the time spent by civil servants reading, discussing and considering requests would be added to this cost. This means that complex FOIA requests could be dismissed solely on financial grounds, with no consideration of the public interest.
Requests could be rejected
Some of the complex FOIA requests made by Which? in the past that would be rejected under the new rules include:
- Restaurant inspection reports – ‘scores on doors’
- EU subsidies paid to individual farmers
- Enforcement policies of the Financial Services Authority
- Details of the ministerial meetings with outside bodies.
The proposed changes would also restrict organisations to making just one FOIA request per quarter.
Mark McLaren, public affairs campaigner, Which? says: ‘Which? has found the Freedom of Information Act an extremely important tool in campaigning on a wide range of consumer issues.
‘We are concerned that the new proposals will mean that any FOIA request that raises a new and complex issue for the first time is at risk of being refused without consideration of its merits. Such requests are by their nature time consuming at first because they challenge long held practices.
‘Although the government claims that these proposals will save taxpayers money, the damage done to consumer rights by hindering organisations like Which? in this way will far outweigh any modest financial benefits.’