"[Changes] would knock out a significant volume of the most important requests on public issues so it would have a pretty drastic effect on the legislation," said Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Frankel was speaking to OUT-LAW Radio, the weekly technology law podcast.
"Major newspapers are going to be rationed in terms of one or two requests a quarter to organisations like the Home Office which has all sorts of important responsibilities, and we're going to get much less information that is of public interest that is needed to hold public authorities to account."
The Department of Constitutional Affairs has announced planned changes to the rules governing FOI requests. More administrative activity charges will apply, meaning that a greater number of applications will break the £600 threshold after which requests can be denied.
In addition the government will allow claims from the same organisation to be wrapped together and refused once they breach £600 in any three month period.
Alan Beith is the Liberal Democrat MP who chaired the Commons Committee which reported into the success of the FOI Act this summer. He believes that the media are being targeted.
"I'm particularly concerned that responsible media use of the FOI Act is the target for this," he told OUT-LAW Radio. "They occasionally cite abuse of this some of which are by individuals rather than media organisations, some of which can be dealt with by existing powers and none of which require this sort of draconian measure."
The DCA said that it did not intend to stifle use of the Act. "The government are doing what they always said and reviewing the position after 12–18 months live running and considering changes in light of experience," said a DCA statement.
"The changes being considered are not to avoid difficult questions," it said. "They are aimed at giving public authorities the ability to deal with burdensome requests or requestors who create a disproportionate burden on a public authority because of the volume of requests they make. It's about getting a balance between the provision of services and the provision of information."
Dr Chris Pounder, a data protection specialist at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW, has made calculations that show that there is a correlation between the number of requests likely to be denied, the number of requests made by journalists and the number which are supervised by ministers.
By analysing figures supplied in a Frontier Economics report commissioned by the DCA, he found that one in seven requests could well be denied should the changes come into force. One in 10 requests is by a journalist and one in nine is sent to be analysed by a minister, he found, raising suspicions that there is a large degree of crossover, meaning that journalists' requests are overseen by ministers and are likely to be turned down under new laws.
"We looked at some of the averages Frontier's report produces and the results are quite surprising," said Pounder. "The conclusion we draw is that a significant proportion of journalists' requests seem to involve ministers."
According to Frankel, any request referred to a minister is almost certain to be denied because of the extra costs involved under the new plans. "Officials can say about any request they are not keen on, we'll send this up to ministers and that will immediately add £200, £250, £300 to the likely costs of dealing with the requests and make it much more likely that it will be refused without further consideration, and that will make it much harder to get information which ministers are worried about."
"Information that ministers are worried about will, merely because they are worried about it, become more difficult to obtain," said Frankel.
Footnote: Dr Chris Pounder was a consultant with Pinsent Masons until September 2008. He now runs a new training business, Amberhawk.