Consultation extension could signal end of plans to relax freedom of information rules

There is a "strong possibility" that the Government will scrap proposals that would make it easier for public bodies to refuse freedom of information requests on cost grounds now that the consultation on the changes has been extended, according to the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

The charity was angry that the original three-month consultation on the Department for Constitutional Affairs’ proposed amendments to the Freedom of Information Act fee regulations was confined to fine-tuning. The NCVO’s Compact Advocacy Programme confirmed that this meant the consultation was not “meaningful” and was, therefore, a breach of the Compact.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs announced yesterday that it would extend the deadline until 21 June and widen the consultation to investigate whether the changes are needed at all.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, welcomed the news and added that the widened remit of the consultation means that there is a “strong possibility” that the Government will abandon the changes.

“If it does decide to make any changes, they are likely to be far more limited than the highly damaging restrictions which had been proposed,” he said. “The decision will now be deferred until after Tony Blair stands down. It is extremely unlikely that Gordon Brown, who is promising to ‘renew’ the government, would attempt to do so by neutering the Freedom of Information Act in the way that had been proposed.”

A review commissioned by the Government last year showed that the total annual costs of the Freedom of Information Act are £35.5m. It estimated that the proposed changes would save up to £10m.

Information rights minister Baroness Catherine Ashton said: “We would like to hear all views and ensure people have the opportunity to comment fully, so we have today published a supplementary paper on the consultation, inviting further comments.”

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