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Wednesday 23rd
posted by Lamiat Sabin in Britain

Campaigning groups warn biased critics will curtail rights

PRESS groups expressed fears yesterday that David Cameron was planning to weaken the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act by allowing biased critics of the law to launch a “cross-party review.”

The Conservative government announced in July that a commission will review the Act as it is concerned that it’s not protecting “sensitive information” relating to the public sector.

A total of 140 newspapers, unions and human rights organisations signed a letter voicing “serious concern” that the commission’s sole “purpose is to consider new restrictions to the Act.”

The five-member commission — former Tory home secretary Michael Howard, Lib Dem peer Lord Carlile, Ofcom’s Dame Patricia Hodgson and Labour former foreign secretary Jack Straw — will be chaired by Lord Burns.

Mr Straw — who helped draft the FoI Act introduced in 2000 — has since criticised the law.

The Labour Party accused him last month of scheming with Tories to restrict access to information.

Mr Howard had been subject to FoI requests by Labour, which unearthed stories relating to his record in high-profile roles including shadow chancellor and Conservative Party leader.

Lord Carlile attacked the Guardian by claiming it committed a “criminal act” by publishing stories using National Security Agency material leaked by whistleblower and former CIA employee Edward Snowden.

Media regulator Ofcom said in 2012 that “there is no doubt” that the FoI Act has a “chilling effect,” which it believes discourages authorities from recording information accurately.

The letter says: “In appointing members to such a body we would expect the government to expressly avoid those who appear to have already reached and expressed firm views.

“It has done the opposite.

“The government does not appear to intend the commission to carry out an independent and open-minded inquiry.

“Such a review cannot provide a proper basis for significant changes to the FoI Act.”

Signatories include national, regional and local newspapers, Private Eye, the Press Association and the National Union of Journalists, along with Campaign Against Arms Trade, Disabled People Against Cuts, Hacked Off, Liberty, Reprieve, Spinwatch, Unite and WhatDoTheyKnow.

They also criticised proposals to replace free appeals with £100 fees for first-tier tribunals against FoI decisions made by the information commissioner. An oral hearing would cost £500 extra.

The commission is expected to report to the Cabinet Office by end of November.