Answers to requests already are published where they are made through public websites like WhatDoTheyKnow.com, but we think that this should be the norm.
For us, of course, this was the stand-out line from the independent commission on the Freedom of Information’s report, published today. It’s great to have an official endorsement of WhatDoTheyKnow’s core premise. But there is plenty more to take in.
You may remember our announcement last year, that a government commission was to consider restricting access to information, with possible outcomes being the introduction of fees for FOI requests and greater powers for authorities to turn down requests.
Today’s report covers the commission’s findings, and is accompanied by a response on behalf of the government.
That’s a lot of reading, so here’s what you need to know.
No fees for FOI
mySociety, as operators of WhatDoTheyKnow and developers of the international Freedom of Information software, Alaveteli, made a submission to the commission.
Along with several other organisations and individuals, we campaigned against introducing charges for making Freedom of Information requests, and encouraged you to share your experiences and opinions in the public consultation.
Many of you were among the 30,000 people who took the time to contribute. Opinion across the board was overwhelmingly against the introduction of fees — and that strength of feeling has been recognised.
In our submission, we argued that introducing a fee for making a Freedom of Information request would have a significant negative impact on our users’ ability and willingness to obtain information from public bodies and would make it difficult, if not impossible, for us to continue to serve our users as well as we do now.
The commission stated:
We have not been persuaded that there are any convincing arguments in favour of charging fees for requests and therefore we make no proposals for change.
And in turn, the government response came:
The government agrees with the commission’s view that it is not appropriate to introduce fees for requests … the introduction of new fees would lead to a reduction in the ability of requesters, especially the media, to make use of the Act.
Publishing responses, WhatDoTheyKnow style
As we’ve already mentioned, the commission recommended the WhatDoTheyKnow practice of publishing responses, saying “we think that this should be the norm”, and adding:
We consider that this will have a number of benefits, such as helping requestors to obtain information which has in fact already been released without needing to make a request, reducing unnecessary requests for information that has already been published, and allowing public authorities to avoid answering duplicate requests where they can simply point to information on their websites.
Universities remain accountable
We were also happy to see both the commission and the government reject lobbying from universities seeking to be excluded from Freedom of Information law. The commission wrote:
It continues to be appropriate and important for universities to remain subject to the Act. They are highly important institutions that play a key public role.
You can’t have everything
All indications are that the FOI law will not be substantially weakened, and we’re delighted about that. But of course, we’d have liked the government to take the opportunity to extend and strengthen the FOI Act too.
We and others argued for the extension of Freedom of Information law to cover more public bodies, including organisations that provide key public services, manage national infrastructure or carry out regulation on behalf of the state.
The commission did not consider the extension of the coverage of the Act, but did recognise this as a key omission from its consideration and noted that it had received lots of responses on this subject — and that the Act’s scope ought be reviewed.
We also made the case for time limits for internal reviews, and consideration of the public interest test. The commission agreed, but on these points the government decided not to make any changes to the law.
We are happy to see the government re-state its aspiration to be “the most transparent government in the world” and hope the new guidance to public bodies promised in the statement released today will help prompt them to operate more openly.
We’ll continue to keep an eye on potential breaches to our rights under FOI. But for now, things look a lot better than we might have feared.