The government’s true motives in clamping down on the Freedom of Information Act has been exposed, according to Labour’s Deputy Leader – to prevent journalists holding ministers to account.
Conservative Chris Grayling, the leader of the House of Commons, has accused journalists of “misusing” the Act to “generate” stories.
Mr Grayling claimed journalists used the Act as a “research tool” and said it should be used for “those who want to understand why and how government is taking decisions”.
But Labour’s deputy, Tom Watson, criticised the comments, and suggest it showed the government wanted to shackle reporters from holding government to account.
He said: “Chris Grayling’s assertion that the Freedom of Information Act is ‘misused’ to generate stories for the media betrays a greater truth about this government’s thinking. What they’d really like to see is less open government.
“It is the job of journalists to hold the government to account on behalf of the public.
“The Freedom of Information Act is a vital tool in their armoury which should not and must not be removed or weakened.”
Mr Grayling was speaking in response to a question from Erdington MP Jack Dromey, who spoke in praise of the Birmingham Post and Mail’s “Hands Off FoI” campaign.
Mr Dromey told the Commons: “In a free society freedom of information is essential.”
In response, Mr Grayling said: “The truth is, the Freedom of Information Act is something this government is committed to, but we want to make sure it works well and fairly, it cannot be abused, it cannot be misused.
“It is, on occasions, misused by those who use it effectively as a research tool to generate stories for the media.
“That isn’t acceptable.”
The Freedom of Information Act became law in 2000 and allows people to demand information from public bodies, such as local councils, the police or the government, about what they are doing.
But the Government has launched a consultation on whether to change the Act – for example by imposing fees on people asking for information and allowing the government ministers simply to refuse to answer some requests.
It has led to widespread concern about the Act – which the Post and Mail has used to uncover dozens of scandals – being watered down.
News industry title Press Gazette launched a petition urging the Government to back away from a bid to water down the Act.
The petition describes any move to introduce fees for FoI requests as a “tax on journalism” that could severely hinder investigations. Its “Hands Off FoI” campaign is in conjunction with the Society of Editors and Holdthefrontpage.
To sign the petition visit www.change.org/p/matthew-hancock-mp-don-t-weaken-the-freedom-of-information-act