Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Straw: "large array of safeguards" against "petty" FOI requests

Responding to a recent question in the Commons from Norman Baker MP, Jack Straw confirmed the Government believes the FOI Act should be extended to the private sector. In response to a subsequent question about the need for amendments to guards against "repeated, petty and often exorbitant" requests, he replied that "there is already a large array of safeguards in the Act and within the practice of the Information Commissioner."
Hansard 29 Jan 2008 : Column 156
Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): What plans he has to bring forward amendments to the Freedom of Information Act 2000. [182471]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): The Freedom of Information Act 2000 has now been in force for three years and appears to be working well, although we keep it under continuous review. We are not proceeding with amendments to the fees regulation. However, we are consulting on whether to extend FOI coverage to a range of organisations that are in the private sector, but carry out public functions. An independent review of the 30-year rule is under way and due to report this summer.

Norman Baker: I welcome that response, and agree with the direction of travel that the Secretary of State is taking. Does he agree that it is a nonsense that the British Potato Council is covered by the 2000 Act but private water companies, which provide an essential and monopolistic service, are not? Furthermore, the British Railways Board, which simply exists in a cosy corner somewhere, is covered, but Network Rail is not. Will he sort that out?

Mr. Straw: I fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and thank him for his earlier remarks. As the boundary between the public and private sectors for the delivery of what are essentially public services has moved, so we believe that the arrangements should move as well. That is why we are consulting on the matter.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Would the Secretary of State consider amendments to the 2000 Act that would protect the public’s right to the information but guard against repeated, petty and often exorbitant requests that are made frequently and do nothing to add to freedom of information?

Mr. Straw: There is already a large array of safeguards in the Act and within the practice of the Information Commissioner. If the hon. Gentleman has specific examples of concern to him, I am ready to follow them up, including with the commissioner.

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