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TOO MUCH INFORMATION

14-04-2007

What a good idea it must have seemed to open up official bodies to questioning by nosy journalists and campaigning groups. Yeah, until they started asking awkward questions. Dave Woodhall reports on new moves to clamp down on our right to know.

Although this government’s record on civil liberties is so bad that every new piece of legislation is almost self-parody, they can still cling to the 2000 Freedom of Information Act as showing that they can, occasionally, do something right.

However, the Act is under threat after a pitifully short time on the statue books and in typical Blairite manner, Parliament will have little chance to debate its fate.

The Act gives the Minister power to set charges for answering requests, and allows public bodies to refuse requests above a maximum cost. At the moment, a request can be refused if the cost of dealing with it exceeds £600 for a government department, or £450 for any other public authority. In calculating whether these limits have been reached authorities can take into account the costs of searching for and extracting the requested information.

The government proposes two substantial changes to these rules. First, authorities would be able to include the cost of the time spent reading the information, consulting others about it and deciding whether it should be released.

Second, the government has proposed that the cost of unrelated requests made by the same individual or organisation to an authority could be aggregated and refused if their combined cost exceeded the £450 or £600 limits.

These moves could restrict use of the Act by the media or campaigning organizations, or make complex requests almost impossible.

To achieve this aim, which I have to admit is brilliant in its mendacity, a Statutory Instrument was drafted, to be laid before Parliament on 19th March, ready to be in force four weeks later. However, so great has been the response to this move that the Minister has given himself “up to three months” to read the protests against.

Luckily, an Early Day Motion opposing the restriction has attracted widespread all-party support, so the initial Instrument looks doomed although the government may still be able to get this legislation passed without a full Commons debate and will no doubt do so should the opportunity be available.

Of less obvious concern but still worthy of note is the latest extension of the penalties available for football supporters suspected of hooligan behaviour.

The Violent Crime Reduction Act which came into force last week confirms the ability of the police to apply for a banning order preventing suspected troublemakers from leaving the country at certain times regardless of whether or not they have been convicted. Powers to apply for banning orders will also be extended to the Crown Prosecution Service and transport police.

This might sound fair enough. Hooliganism blighted football for many years it has the potential to become a major problem once again. However, I’m not entirely happy with anything that punishes the innocent - and whether we like it or not, if someone hasn’t been convicted of a specific offence then they’re as innocent as you or I.

Don’t get me wrong; there are some I’d prefer not to be allowed out of their own house never mind the country. But if they’re going to be punished they should be tried and convicted, not sentenced on the whim of a faceless civil servant.

Anyone who was transported back Life On Mars-style to a football match twenty years ago would have found similarities with life in 2007, not least in the way that the police could do whatever they wanted to hamper the freedom of guilty and innocent alike.

I wonder how long it is before we feel the need to worry about the powers of faceless civil servants to restrict our movement, and how long before Broad Street revellers suddenly find themselves unable to jet off to Ibiza because they’re ordered to surrender their passports for fear they might misbehave.

Should people face restrictions on their movement if they haven’t been convicted? Should we have the right to know everything that’s done in our name? And what other freedoms have we lost? Leave a comment on our messageboard.

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