Senior members of staff at the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) have ‘concerns’ over potential changes to the Freedom of Information Act.

Deputy Information Commissioner Graham Smith said he believes that any planned changes will not be easily passed by the government and that he would have concerns if exemptions were “tinkered” with.

The comments come in light of Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary, saying that he wants to “review” the FOI Act and make changes to the process, which campaigners have called a “two-pronged attack”.

“We won’t necessarily oppose things, what our job is to do is to draw attention to the practical impact and the impact on transparency of any proposals,” Smith said.

“Whether it is a net benefit or a net loss to transparency. At the end of the day the government is the government and now we have a majority government we have to apply the law as is passed by parliament.”

Despite Gove’s announcements to parliament the ICO has not been told of any impending changes to the legislation. A letter the office wrote to Gove, once he had been appointed to the position in the Ministry of Justice, has yet to be responded to.

Smith said that the amount of people that have used FOI in the last 10 years will mean that any changes which would negatively impact the access to information would be vocally opposed by the legislation’s supporters.

“My own view is that I don’t think that any changes to try and restrict FOI will be able to be passed lightly, because I think FOI is now so established in the public administration, there’s been so much information released for the benefit of the public and the users of FOI come from such a wide-spectrum that there could not silently be a loss of transparency. We will have to see what comes from the government.

Smith said that there were a lot of things that were “left in the air” from the government’s response to the Justice Committee’s review of the FOI Act in 2012. 

At the time the government said it was considering cutting down the “burden” that FOI placed on public authorities and this included the impact that “industrial requesters”- who make lost of requests – have.

“There are things that the ICO argued for, like a clear limit  on public interest test extensions, on the time taken from internal reviews, which we still see as being problems in the system which delay the disclosure of information,” Smith said after the ICO’s annual report launch last week.

“My own concern would be more that there may be exemptions which are either strengthened or tinkered with, I think the other thing as we see in the court cases is the distinct between the Environmental Information Regulations and the FOI regime.

“The Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal in different cases have highlighted the difference in those regimes and the impact that the EIRs are based on European Directives so it will be interesting to see what developments are made in that area.”

I am a journalist and author. I am a journalist at the UK edition of WIRED magazine. In 2015, my first book Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists, was published. My second book Reed Hastings: Building Netflix, was published in March 2020. I created FOI Directory in 2012 and have maintained it in my spare time ever since.