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Proposed reforms aimed at denying costliest requests for publicly held information endanger fledgling Freedom of Information Act, says ARTICLE 19

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - The following is a 19 June 2007 ARTICLE 19 press release:

United Kingdom: Proposed Reforms Endanger Freedom of Information Act

ARTICLE 19 has urged the British government to drop its plans to change the way in which costs for access to publicly held information are calculated. Responding to an official consultation, ARTICLE 19 warned that the proposed amendments would greatly enfeeble the fledgling freedom of information regime on the pretext of saving a very modest amount of money.

"After two successful years of the Freedom of Information Act's operation, it is as though the government wants to put the genie back into the bottle," said Agnès Callamard, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.

The annual cost of the FOI Act is £35.5 million; according to government figures, 5% of information requests account for 45% of this amount. The thrust of the proposed amendments is to eliminate the most expensive requests by making it easier to refuse them on the grounds of costs, leading to projected annual savings of £11.8 million.

In its submission, ARTICLE 19 points out that the Act, which has already exposed serious inefficiencies in the use of public funds, offers good overall value at just 0.0064% of total government expenditure. The proposed measures fail to discriminate between expensive requests which are in the public interests and those which are not. By the government's own admission, the hardest hit groups of requesters would be journalists, MPs, campaign groups and researchers, which collectively hold the government to account.

ARTICLE 19 takes the position that at 67p per person in England and Wales, the cost of the FOI Act is reasonable and in line with other jurisdictions. If cost-cutting is nevertheless deemed necessary, the government should choose those means which are least harmful to the right to know. To date, it has made no effort to explore other options, such as charging for requests which impose a significant cost or refusing requests when the cost of processing them is out of proportion to the public interest they serve. Accordingly, the submission joins the chorus of voices calling for the proposed amendments to be dropped.

The submission, which is in response to a supplementary consultation called by the Department of Constitutional Affairs (now subsumed in the new Ministry of Justice), can be downloaded from the ARTICLE 19 website at
http://www.article19.org/publications/law/legal-analyses.html

ARTICLE 19 is an independent human rights organisation that works globally to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression. It takes its name from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees free speech.

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