Submitted by the Newspaper Publishers
The Newspaper Publishers Association would like
to make the following brief submission to the Select Committee
in respect of their investigation into the draft Freedom of Information
Bill. The NPA represents major national daily and Sunday newspaper
publishers: Associated Newspapers Limited, Express Newspapers
Limited, News International plc, Telegraph Group Limited, Mirror
Group plc, the Financial Times Limited, Guardian Media Group plc
and Independent Newspapers (UK) Limited. We will be responding
in detail to the Home Office consultation on the draft Bill, but
we are keen for the Committee to be aware of the principle points
of concern to us at this time.
The NPA welcomes the following aspects of the
It will be an offence for an official
to destroy a document once an application has been made for it;
The average fee will be around £10,
and not more than 10 per cent of the cost of meeting the request,
which is an improvement on the White Paper;
Provision might be made to bring
contractors working on public projects directly within the scope
of the Act.
However, the NPA regrets the following aspects:
The Bill gives authorities the power
to classify safety information as top secret. Any reports concerning
rail, air, road or ferry accidents, or accidents concerning fires,
dangerous consumer products, or chemical and nuclear incidents
would be exempt under the Billin fact, exemptions go wider
than thisany information held by public authorities will
The recommendation that all police
information should be covered by the Bill, made in the Macpherson
report, has been rejected. Any information relating to an inquiry
is exempt, other than how many officers are working on it.
The appointment of an FOI Commissioner
is a forward step, but they will only have the power to require
a public body to reconsider making information available, rather
than having the power to compel them to do so. The Commissioner
is therefore effectively "toothless".
Any authority choosing to release
information is able to demand that reasons are given why the information
is needed, and can also restrict the use to which that information
can be put. There are clear implications for reporting in this,
in that the authority can specify that an item can be used privately,
but not published in, eg, a national newspaper.
Information regarding developing
government policy is exempt. This policy, which would result in
more information being secret than at present, means not just
internal documents providing guidance, but also factual information
being used to shape that policy. The latter should be available
to access for use by journalists. This would include scientific
advice on issues like GM foods and BSE.
The "substantial harm"
test has been replaced by a proviso that information can be withheld
by public bodies if they feel that it might "prejudice the
effective conduct of public affairs". This clearly allows
public bodies to refrain from releasing virtually anything that
they do not want in the public domain. The only way legally that
a decision to withhold on these grounds could be reversed would
be if it was decided that the decision was "irrational"
or "outrageous in its defiance of logic".
It is even proposed that information
that is by itself harmless can be withheld on the grounds that,
if used with other information, its disclosure could be harmful.
This provides yet another sweeping limit on the information that
might be made available.
The time limit on requests is again
unhelpful. Authorities have 40 days in which they must respond.
This again will seriously hamper newspaper reporters/researchers,
who will not always be able to wait for this period of time, unless
they are running a long-term investigation.