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Assessment of FOI regime should be based on evidence not emotion, watchdog says

MPs reviewing the UK's freedom of information (FOI) regime should assess its success based on evidence and facts, the Information Commissioner has said.

The House of Commons' Justice Select Committee is currently holding a consultation seeking views on the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act  as part of a "post-legislative scrutiny" of the way the regime is working. Christopher Graham said that committee's assessment should be based on proof and not on feeling.

"I hope that the review of the first seven years is going to be based on evidence, not emotion, fact not fantasy. We need careful analysis and calm debate to arrive at an FOI settlement that is truly fit for purpose," Graham said.

Ex-cabinet secretary Gus O'Donnell recently claimed that FOI laws had "stifled ministerial debate on policy" because conversations that were documented could be subject an FOI request.

The FOI Act and the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act came into full force on 1 January 2005, giving individuals the right for the first time to see information held by Government departments and public bodies.

Under the FOI laws anyone of any nationality living anywhere in the world can make a written request for information and expect a response within 20 working days. The public authority will be obliged to meet that request unless exemptions apply or unless meeting it will be too costly or difficult. Public bodies can decide not to provide information requested if they deem the request to be vexatious.

In December the Justice Select Committee launched a consultation asking for evidence about the effectiveness, strengths, weaknesses and operating function of the FOI Act. Respondents to the consultation have until 3 February to submit their views on the subject.

The Information Commissioner's Office has also published a new guide on FOI which it hopes will help public bodies "better understand" their requirements under the regime.

The "plain English" guide explains FOI laws in a "straight-forward" fashion and explains to public bodies what they need to do to comply with them "in simple terms," the watchdog said.

“Applying the Freedom of Information Act correctly can be a challenge and matters of interpretation can be complex. But we shouldn’t make the Act appear more complicated than it is by resorting to arcane terms and obscure references in hard to find guidance notes and reference books," Graham said.

“The new Guide to FOI is about demystifying the Act by making the legislation more user-friendly and intelligible. We’ve done away with legalistic terms in favour of plain and simple language and, for the first time, all of the basic information and advice now lives in one place. I am sure the guide will be an invaluable resource for FOI officers when considering requests," he said.

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