Select Committee on Public Administration Memoranda


Submitted by the Newspaper Publishers Association

  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 Bill:

    —  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 Bill—in fact, exemptions go wider than this—any information held by public authorities will be classified.

    —  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.

June 1999

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