BRITAIN'S Freedom of Information Act is one year old. Since it became possible for the public to ask the government and other public bodies to make available information they held, about 130'000 requests have been made and 16'000 pieces of information provided, ranging from a most interesting list of UK beneficiaries of farm subsidies to the guest lists for luncheon at Chequers. The gap between the asking and the giving is unsatisfactory as is the fact that 22 per cent of appeals against refusal to provide the information requested have been upheld by the independent regulator. The reflex instinct of civil servants or local government officers to keep information to themselves, especially if its release might throw a negative light on their offices' activities, is still prevalent. Nonetheless, a start has been made and mindless secrecy is rarer than it used to be. Good for the government. Except that Lord Falconer, the Constitutional Affairs Secretary, has just begun a review of the working of the Act and is thought to be inclined to introduce a charge for each request for information. This should be resisted strongly. The only point of such a charge would be as a deterrent to those wanting information to which the Act entitles them. When Ireland introduced a similar charge three years ago the number of requests dropped by a quarter. Lord Falconer has spoken about the burden on officials of frivolous requests but it does not follow that what initially seems frivolous may not in fact be a serious fishing expedition. A lot of fine words were spoken by ministers when the Act came into force a year ago. Lord Falconer said how proud he was that we are willing to trust the people by subjecting ourselves to a statutroy access regime. It's taken decades to get this Act on the statute book. Let's not row back now because it's working so well.
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