Note: Not only were these changes outruled, but WhatDoTheyKnow got a nice mention in the process. See more in our follow-up blog post.
Proposed changes, currently under discussion by a cross-party government commission, could make it much harder for you to access information.
This is what the proposed restrictions would mean for you:
- You’d be charged for making a request
- Your request could be turned down on the grounds of cost, even more easily than it can be now
- You’d find it more difficult (or even impossible) to obtain details of public authorities’ internal discussions
- The release of government information could be easily blocked by ministers
- The newspapers that you read would be less able to uncover stories of corruption, malpractice or cover-ups.
You have until 20 November if you’d like to voice your opposition to these restraints.
Here are four easy ways you can take action right now—you’ll find more details about all of them on the Campaign For Freedom of Information’s website.
What you can do
1. If you have 60 seconds: sign a petition
Sign the 38 Degrees petition to Protect FOI laws.
If you’re a journalist, you can sign the Hands Off FOI petition, too.
2. If you have 5 minutes, write to your MP
Use WriteToThem.com to tell your MP why Freedom of Information is important and how restrictions would affect you, or society as a whole. Stuck for words? Here are some ideas.
3. If you have 10 minutes, submit an FOI story
SaveFOI are collecting stories of how Freedom of Information has made a difference to individuals and organisations. Here’s how to contribute.
4. If you have a little more time, respond directly to the consultation
The call for evidence is here and there is further guidance on the Campaign For Freedom of Information’s website. 38 Degrees have also put together this super-easy Plain English version.
Why these restrictions matter
Freedom of Information is for everyone, not just those who can afford it
If you charge for making a Freedom of Information request, you automatically exclude a sector of society from the right to know.
It’s not just that a limited income will discourage some people from making requests (though it will, and our research has already shown that engaging with our democratic system is largely the preserve of the well-educated and well-off, a situation which needs to be rectified).
It’s also that the added complexity will discourage those who already consider the FOI process daunting—something we’ve always striven hard to overcome with WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
The right to information should be available to everyone. Not just those with money to spare, and the bureaucratic skills to navigate its complexities.
We’ve seen the results of restrictions in other countries
Our Alaveteli software helps people run FOI sites all over the world. At our recent conference, we heard of the struggles those people face, from the charging of fees, to bodies’ refusal to release information, to complex red tape.
In every case, the result was impeded access to information, a lowering of public’s engagement with their right to know, and increased disenfranchisement.
In Ireland, for example, where similar constraints were put in place in 2003, overall usage of the FOI Act fell by over 50%, and requests by the media by over 83%*.
Note that many important UK news stories in recent times have come from FOI requests: the imposition of fees and restrictions will have a stifling effect on journalists.
The current consultation threatens to put the UK in the same boat.
Government ministers could pick and choose what they release
Running WhatDoTheyKnow, we’re already aware that many requests are turned down—requests which we’d consider quite reasonable.
If these new restrictions take hold, it will be much easier for ministers to use the power of veto to withhold any information they choose.
The “safe space” argument as in the Commission’s call for evidence stresses the importance of collective cabinet responsibility and not revealing private splits within the cabinet.
We believe that such splits are in fact vital for the public to know about, in the interests of democracy. We’d also say it’s likely, human nature being what it is, that should a veto be made available, information will also be withheld when it is inconvenient or detrimental to the ministers’ party line.
Public authorities are funded by us, the public
If you pay someone to do a job, you’re within your rights to examine their work when you need to.
We should never forget that public authorities—the bodies which are subject to the FOI Act—are funded by us, the taxpayer. We should have the right to hold them to account.
If the government is concerned about the costs of FOI, instead of imposing restrictions, it should promote more proactive disclosure of information held by public bodies, which would save everyone time and money.
How will you help?
These are just a few of the reasons we’ll be asking you to take action over the next ten days. Please do all you can—and then help spread the word.
*A Review of the Operation of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003: An Investigation into the Effects of the Amendment Act and the Introduction of Fees on Access Requests by Members of the Public. Ireland later reversed the decision to introduce fees “to restore the balance”.
Image: Kimberly Kauer (CC)
I’d like to see Freedom of Information Act coverage extended, not curtailed. For example, I’d like to see it extended to any company that receives government money so we can see how that money is spent. I would include companies supplying goods and services to government and local authorities above a threshold of, say, £10,000 in any one financial year.
Reducing the effect of FoI says loud and clear “we have something to hide and we want to hide it more deeply”. We all need to resist this and press for more open government, especially local authorities which are largely unaccountable at the moment. More data should be routinely, freely released. FoI is an important element of a real democracy.
I agree wholeheartedly with All you are doing on our behalf; very much appreciated!!
This is extremely worrying. A slippery slope into more control over us by the state. We must have freedom of information.
What happened to all the promises of transparency in Government? There is only one reason to restrict access to information, it is not national security or cost cutting, it is to hide dishonesty & malpractice.
Scumbag politicians trying to cover up their corruption again. Not on my watch !
As My Society is committed to the importance of FOI, isn’t it about time your parent charity voluntarily acted as if you were subject to the Freedom of Information Act?
Your charity receives funds from public authorities:
and charges councils at least £4500 each for Fix My Street:
You criticised various public transport operators in 2012 for not engaging with Fix My Transport when they were under no legal obligation to do so.
Presumably you have no objection, then, to your parent charity acting as if it was subject to FOI and responding to requests?
This is a topic that has been suggested before, and which we continue to discuss.
Of course, we’re not subject to FOI, but as a charity, our accounts are audited and published, in line with the Charity Commission’s rulings.
Then of course, the local authorities for whom we provide services *are* subject to FOI, so full details of the contracts and other details can be found out by requesting the information from them. Typical wording in a contract states that we’ll do everything necessary to aid any FOI requests the councils receive about our services.
If there’s something particular you’d like to know beyond that, please do tell us and we’ll try to answer it.
Please can you elaborate on the reasons why your parent charity or WDTK decided not to voluntarily become subject to FOI?
Don’t you think that it undermines your arguments in favour of FOIA if a website which is promoting the legislation decides not to voluntarily be more transparent, rather than just sticking to minimum legal requirements for charities?
In response to your offer to deal with a request for information, please can you provide:
1. the maximum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was;
2. the minimum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was.
3. all the councils which have purchased Fix My Street in the last year (to facilitate making FOI requests to them).
We’re just collecting the information and will reply as soon as it’s ready.
We’ve now emailed you the response to your queries. As explained in that email, we’ll also be blogging them shortly.
Delivery to the email address attached to this comment failed.
Could you either let us have an accurate email address (which you can provide to email@example.com) or state your preference to have our response provided here as a comment on the blog.
Why is a “fee’ country like ours suddenly becoming more like an Eastern Tiranically controlled State?
There must be something to hide !!
This hints at Nazism or Stalins USSR, our politicians are supposed to answer to us and not the other way round. What are they hiding or more like scared of????
Using FOI I discovered the local authority’s top boss forging council documents; other staff falsifying council records; slap-dash bad performance by council subcontractors; council attempts to delay closer working with police on child protection issues; council chief executive being paid £186K per year – about £45k more than the prime minister.
Councils and government are supposed to work for the public and be honest and accountable to the public who pay their often inflated wages and very generous perks.
Curtailing the FOI Act 2000 (which did not become operational until 1 January 2005) is an attack upon the public by arrogant, possibly criminal, despots who make our lives a misery. If we want a better life in the UK then we must have a lot more OPENNESS and HONESTY and PUBLIC ACCOUNTABILITY instead of concealment of misconduct, bungs to staff leaving, corruption and all the other unsavory things our Rulers engage in.
Expand the FOI Act – don’t let the cheats restrict it to the rich who can afford to pay and don’t let the cheats do even more cover-ups of incredible shameful abuses of power and of tax payers’ money.
You can never have anything resembling democracy if our arrogant Rulers are restricting public access to PUBLIC information.
Please can you post the information on your blog.
Before we respond, it is worth clarifying that there are three entities relevant to the questions you have asked in your request.
UK Citizens Online Democracy (or UKCOD), a registered charity and company limited by guarantee, is the parent organisation. All its charitable activities are carried out under the name ‘mySociety’.
WhatDoTheyKnow.com is one such activity. It is run and its decisions are taken mainly by its team of volunteer administrators, with significant topics considered by UKCOD’s trustees and the management of mySociety.
The charity also owns a subsidiary trading company, mySociety Ltd, which is the entity that provides paid-for services to clients such as UK councils. Profits are reinvested into our charitable work.
Requests for information from UKCOD and its subsidiaries may be addressed to them via:
And from WhatDoTheyKnow via:
1. Please can you elaborate on the reasons why your parent charity or WDTK decided not to voluntarily become subject to FOI?
2. Don’t you think that it undermines your arguments in favour of FOIA if a website which is promoting the legislation decides not to voluntarily be more transparent, rather than just sticking to minimum legal requirements for charities?
Strictly speaking, it is impossible to voluntarily become subject to a law which covers public authorities, if you are not yourself a public authority. However, we are interpreting this question to mean “why do you not allow members of the public to request information about your work?”
The simple answer to that is: we do. As an organisation, mySociety is in favour of transparency. We advocate for it in other organisations, and we try to practice what we preach within our own, to a much further extent than is required by law.
For example, the development of all our projects is conducted in public on Github, where anyone may track the conversations and issues that arise. Our website and blog both include frank content about our funding and user numbers; our published research reveals facts such as our user demographics, even where we’ve found that they paint a disappointing picture.
Another way to interpret your question might be, ‘Why is mySociety (or WhatDoTheyKnow/UKCOD) not included on WhatDoTheyKnow as a body to which you may address questions in public?”.
WhatDoTheyKnow.com is a site which was conceived to make it much easier for members of the public to use their right to hold the government accountable. Charities are not government bodies and do not fall under the scope of the FOI Act, and so when this question has arisen (as it occasionally does in conversation or by the request of a user) our answer has always been that including them is not part of our remit and would, in fact, reduce the value of the site by muddying its primary purpose.
Of course, like most mySociety projects, the source code is publicly available for anyone to pick up and use, so if anyone wished to initiate a similar project which put questions to charities or any other type of body, they are free to do so.
3. In response to your offer to deal with a request for information, please can you provide:
a. the maximum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was; b. the minimum fee which has been charged to an individual council for Fix My Street and which council it was.
The terms of some of our contracts with councils explicitly state that we must not disclose this information; however, as previously indicated, you may contact each council under the terms of the FOI Act; they are listed below in response to your final question together with a link to their profile on WhatDoTheyKnow should you wish to make an FOI request.
b. All the councils which have purchased Fix My Street in the last year (to facilitate making FOI requests to them).
Note that these are already listed on https://www.fixmystreet.com/reports (any council where we note a council URL below the FixMyStreet link). Additionally we provided a bespoke version of the FixMyStreet software to the city of Zurich.
Taking “the last year” to be 1 November 2014 to the present date, and taking “purchased” to mean “have given us money for anything FixMyStreet-related”, our clients are:
Harrogate Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Greenwich Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Annual support fee charged for existing installation:
Stevenage Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Oxfordshire County Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Hart District Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Bromley Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
East Sussex County Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
Warwickshire County Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)
New work done on existing installation:
Oxfordshire County Council
Warwickshire County Council
Zurich City Council
Scoping work done so that they could build their own Open311 integration:
Camden Borough Council (on WhatDoTheyKnow)