Protecting the sector’s freedom for information

Earlier in October, we asked you to tell us how potential changes to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) would affect your work. NCVO has now submitted our response to the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information, pushing back on exemptions and charges that could affect the way the voluntary sector advocates on behalf of its beneficiaries.

What’s it all about?

The Independent Commission on Freedom of Information was set up to examine whether or not the Act provides a ‘safe space’ for frank discussions and policy development, and whether or not the Act places too big a burden on public authorities.

Its terms of references remain narrow and far from looking at any enhancements or extensions of the Act, the Commission is examining ways of tightening its exemptions and even the possibility of introducing charges.

Why do we need to protect that Act?

We know that across the voluntary sector, charities have found Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to be a powerful tool allowing them to better understand and support their beneficiaries. Our sector has proven success in using FOI requests to collect and bring together fragmented data from across public authorities, which allows us to highlight and advocate on issues where communities are not being best served.

Further restrictions on exemptions to the FOIA, and the possibility of charges for FOI requests, would dramatically reduce our ability to understand the communities we work in and hold public bodies to account.

The chilling effect

The government is concerned by a small number of cases where ministers had to exercise their veto powers to protect sensitive information from being disclosed. They argue there is now uncertainty in what could be considered for release, and this in turn creates a chilling effect in the policy development process.

Our response was heavily influenced by the Justice Select Committee’s post legislative scrutiny of the FOIA. The Committee could not find conclusive evidence that the FOIA caused a chilling effect in government decisions and we argued that without a stronger case of its existence, there shouldn’t be any further exemptions in place in the Act.

We also argued that although the system isn’t perfect, it seems far more proportionate for ministers to use their veto in exceptional circumstances, than to apply additional and broad exemptions on materials relating to policy development.

Weighing up the costs

We all know that the public sector as a whole is facing significant pressures on how they are spending money. FOI costs can appear expensive for public bodies on the surface, but it’s important to put them in context. It’s estimated that central government departments spend less than 2% of their external communications activities on complying with the FOIA. This is a small price to pay, particularly when the public benefits of this spend are also taken into account.

Charities use FOI requests in a number of different ways, from building up research, to understanding how decisions have been made on issues affecting our beneficiaries. A large part of our FOI activity comes from asking for information because the data has not been published or isn’t accessible. This is especially true for health and social care sectors, where data is patchy at best.

We believe that better routine publication of data, which is already held by authorities, would significantly reduce the number of FOI requests made and in turn the burden placed on public authorities.

But, that’s not to say that we should replace FOI requests with open data. Both tools should be used together to ensure a transparent and accountable government. The decision of what information the public wants and is entitled to see, is not for public authorities to decide.

Fundamentally, NCVO believes that any attempt to create charges for FOI requests would be a step backwards for the openness and transparency of the UK. Because of the fragmented state and poor practice in published data, charities must routinely submit FOI requests to public bodies nationwide to determine a national picture. Any charges, whether flat fees for submitting or charges based on staff time would quickly run into thousands of pounds. This would reduce the sector’s ability to access information that helps us better understand and support our beneficiaries, and divert charitable funds to paying for information that should be freely available.

What next?

The Commission is due to report before Christmas. The government will then decide how many of its recommendations to implement, probably in the new year. We’ll be keeping an eye out and will keep you updated as the process continues.

If you’d like to get in touch in the meantime, you can do so by commenting below or emailing


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Karina Russell was NCVO’s policy officer. She covered issues around public services, improving commissioning and procurement practice and advancing the social value agenda.

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