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Hands off freedom of information laws, say Churches

11 December 2015

PA

Considering proposals: the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, at the Conservative Party Conference, in October 

Considering proposals: the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, at the Conservative Party Conference, in October 

WEAKENING freedom-of-information laws would allow public bodies to get away with publishing “disingenuous” and “misleading” material, the Church of Scotland and some Free Churches have said.

In a formal submission to a government consultation on freedom of information (FOI), the Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT) — from the Baptist Union, Methodist Church, United Reformed Church, and Church of Scotland — warned against any changes to the rules that force government departments, local councils, and other public organisations to reveal information when asked.

“Greater access to information enables our Churches and others to examine evidence for proposed change in policy and this in turn improves the quality of public and parliamentary debate,” the submission states.

The JPIT had itself used FOI requests for its recent report on benefit sanctions in the welfare system (News, 6 March). Noting that the Department for Work and Pensions’ statistics on sanctions were “disingenuous” and had been criticised by the national statistician, the Churches used FOI requests to confirm the details of the “misleading information”.

Furthermore, FOI laws could be used to root out documents that were not deliberately hidden by Government, but which would not normally have been published, the JPIT submission argued.

The Government is considering plans to tweak FOI legislation to limit the public’s ability to find out about policy discussions within departments, but the Churches opposed this strongly, too.

“It would appear that there is little evidence to suggest that there currently exists a ‘chilling effect’ that compromises the effectiveness of policy-making,” they said. “Exemptions should not be available for the purpose of protecting government ministers or officials from embarrassment.”

They also rejected the suggestion of introducing fees for FOI requests, as this would disproportionately hit poorer people more than others. “The poorest are the easiest to ignore, the easiest to misrepresent,” they said.

The Independent Commission on Freedom of Information’s call for evidence has now closed, after receiving 30,000 submissions.

The Commission, which was set up in July to review FOI law, will now ask some groups and individuals to give oral evidence in January, before finalising its recommendations on reforming the 2000 Freedom of Information Act.

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