THIS newspaper’s ability to unearth scandals, criminality and the misuse of taxpayer’s money is under threat.

Freedom of Information requests by The Argus have brought to light dangerous criminals being on the loose, ruinous underinvestment in the seafront, failures on the railways and even doctors’ malpractice.

Had the act not been in force this information would have been almost impossible to unearth.

However, the government is considering imposing limits or charges which would prevent this paper, along with other media outlets and millions of citizen journalists, from gaining access to important information.

The Freedom of Information Act 2005 was brought in by the government under prime minister Tony Blair and applies to more than 100,000 public sector bodies including local and central government, police forces, schools and the NHS.

It enables anybody to ask for information and given it does not fall under a series of exemptions (such as a threat to national security) it has to be released.

The government's consultation comes as The Argus reveal the extent to which Sussex councils are breaking the law with requests for information and as Brighton and Hove City Council was criticised for reversing its policy of making past FOI requests available to the public online.

Steve Parry, who has filed dozens of requests in the city, said: “People generally, and journalists in particular, have to see that processes have not been a result of undue lobbying, influence or ignorance.

“If there are changes to the act, there will be more information hidden and for a functioning democracy you need to have information.”

The government is considering imposing a £20 charge for each FOI, which would put requests out of reach of most individuals and cash-strapped local newspapers.

Mike Gilson, editor of The Argus, said: "It has been a vital tool in opening up the sort of detail and fact that fuels debate in a properly democratic society.

All institutions have a tendency not to share information. It’s in their DNA. When you hear statutory authorities saying they believe in transparency it is usually transparency on their terms.

"The list of stories uncovered by The Argus using the act is impressive testimony to the important role in plays."

The review of the act was triggered by the Supreme Court ruling that the government must publish the so-called “black spider memos” written by Prince Charles to ministers.

The review focuses on whether additional safeguards are needed to protect the internal deliberations of public bodies, and whether the cost of answering FOI requests has become too great.

Central government has received between 30,00 and 52,000 requests a year since the act was passed, at an average cost of £184 in staff time to resolve each.

Local authorities receive around 200,000 requests a year at a total cost of £31.6 million.

At present it is free to make a request unless the cost of answering it exceeds £450.

The findings of the review will be presented to the government in the new year.


THE Argus discovered Sussex Police bosses were failing to inform the public about hundreds of crimes after filing a Freedom of Information request.  It was the only way this newspaper could tell readers 787 crimes were reported in a fortnight – while police press officers only told you about two of them.

They included rapes, robberies, kidnapping, possession of firearms and other weapons, drugs trafficking and threats to kill – most of which remain unsolved.  On July 9 the force faced criticism for failing to be transparent in the wake of this revelation despite having one of the highest expenditures of all forces for communications – £1.2 million.


IN APRIL 2015 we named 24 convicted criminals on the run from Ford Open Prison, including murderer Derek Passmore who beat a disabled man to death in 1996.

The Ministry of Justice took almost six months to respond to our request despite the act requiring an answer within 20 working days.

The MOJ apologised for the delay but kept secret the names of 10 of the 39 prisoners listed, who all went missing between 2004 and 2014 and were still at large.


DETAILS about the neglect of the seafront arches were unearthed by Freedom of Information requests made by reporters and residents.

We revealed that just a few thousand pounds was spent on maintenance in the years before its partial collapse and closure.

Madeira Terrace received £7,500 in maintenance funding in 2012/13 while King’s Road Arches received £9,500 in 2011/12.

Councillor Tom Druitt said the council was “playing catch up” after inadequate investment over 30 to 40 years.


IN August we broke the news that former Brighton and Hove chief executive Penny Thompson had received an additional £36,000 for overseeing election counts during her 30-month tenure, in addition to a £150,000-a-year salary.

The council’s accounts showed she received a £10,000 election bonus in May 2015.  However, FOI revealed the actual figure was more than £26,000. The payment included a bonus for overseeing general and local elections at the same time.