FoI part of ‘grown up’ democracy

The Freedom of Information (FoI) act has become a beneficial fixture of British democracy and should not be subject to attacks, the information commissioner claimed today.

However, he reassured public bodies they could reject “frivolous” requests and said he would draw up a charter for responsible use of the act.

Speaking at the FoI conference, information commissioner Richard Thomas did not make direct reference to the private members bill going through parliament – which seeks to exempt MPs from FoI requests – but he warned the act should not become a “battlefield”.

Mr Thomas said: “Of course there are bound to be times when the Freedom of Information Act may be uncomfortable.

“But openness – even where it reveals uncertainties, disagreements or embarrassments – treats citizens as grown ups and reflects the realities of public life. People respect honesty, not cover up.”

The commissioner called for a presumption of disclosure, unless there are genuine reasons.

“This must trump any instinct of unnecessary secrecy which simply suggests a public authority has something to hide,” he confirmed.

But, he insisted the FoI must be used responsibly, warning so-called frivolous requests undermined the credibility of the act.

The Information Commission will establish a charter for responsible FoI requests, which will aim to prevent requests without any serious purpose or value.

Frivolous claims received by public so far include a request to Hampshire police for a list of eligible bachelors and a query to the Foreign Office about the number of Ferrero Roche served by ambassadors.

Richard Thomas said: “I am sympathetic towards public authorities that refuse to deal with vexatious requests which clearly serve no reasonable purpose. Such requests do a disservice to all who want freedom of information to be a success.

“But I am surprised that public authorities are not making more robust use of the existing provisions under the Act for excluding vexatious requests.”

However, he warned any block must not be overused. Requests should not be denied because they are embarrassing or uncomfortable he warned.

Mr Thomas stressed: “People respect honesty, not cover up.”