THE Freedom of Information Act has only been in operation for two years but already the Government wants to curb the volume of requests for information.

Journalists will be the most affected so The Society of Editors has launched a campaign to to try to prevent the Act being watered down. Wes Wright investigates.

PRIME Minister Tony Blair promised more open government and accountability when the Freedom of Information Act was made law two years ago.

But now, following a spate of embarassing stories, the Government appears to be backtracking on its promise of easy and open access to public information.

The Freedom of Information Act (FoI) opened the floodgates to publicly held information that was previously kept secret.

Before the act came into law decisions affecting every aspect of people's lives were often made in secret in Britain's corridors of power.

But the long awaited introduction of the FoI act handed back considerable power to ordinary voters and was hailed as a new benchmark in open democratic Government.

The act gave everyone the right to ask any public body for a wide range of information and journalists and members of the public began to use the service in their thousands after an initially slow start.

But now the Government is seeking to radically reduce the number of FoI requests allegedly on the grounds of cost.

In just six weeks time the Government is proposing to make it much easier for public bodies to turn down requests for information for financial reasons - and it proposes to do this under delegated powers without recourse to Parliament.

That means there will be no public discussion on what could be far reaching radical changes on how the FoI bill can be used in the future.

Critics say that the Government has got cold feet about freedom of information following a number of highly controversial stories.

The changes in the FoI act are designed to target serial requestors' - and the Government's own consultation document admits that the majority of those affected will be journalists.

If this radical change gets the Government go-ahead, and all the signs are that it will unless there is serious public and media opposition, then the role of a free press in monitoring all levels of government will be severely curtailed.

According to the Government's own independent review, an extra 17,000 FoI questions out of 100,000 a year will be turned down on cost grounds.

If the proposed changes go through as they are they will neuter the act completely, according to the Newspaper Society.

And as The Society of Editors director Bob Satchwell said: "The changes have the potential to destroy the act and the progress it has made towards changing a culture of obsessive secrecy in Government to one of openness."

Now the journalist magazine Press Gazette is urging every newspaper in the country and concerned individuals to support and sign a petition.

It urges the Government not to undermine the effectiveness of the Freedom of Information Act by passing into law the Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2007.

The prime beneficiaries of the FoI Act have been journalists who have made thousands of requests for information from all kinds of public bodies. But individuals have also made FoI requests.

In Bolton the council deals with around 190 enquiries every year from the media, individuals and companies on a whole range of subjects.

Bolton South-east MP Dr Brian Iddon was surprised that the Government seemed to be attempting to curb the act.

"I'm surprised by this as I am a great supporter of the FoI and I voted for it in Parliament.

"It is Labour Party policy and it's important that people have the right to know what their democratically elected representatives in Parliament and in local government are up to."

David Crausby, MP for Bolton North-east, also said he had not known of the plans: "Government is so vast it's impossible to know everything that is happening in Westminster.

"It is important that Government and local councils are scrutinised. Freedom to get information and a free press are important."

Mr Crausby pledged to link up with Dr Iddon to see what they could find out about the proposed changes.

Government minister Ruth Kelly and MP for Bolton West says: "The Freedom of Information Act has been hailed a significant success' by the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee.

"But Freedom of Information has to be balanced with good government. It would be wrong not to make adjustments in light of experience and make sure we get the balance right between the provision of services and the provision of information."

Steve Hughes, editor of The Bolton News, said: "The Freedom of Information Act was brought in to ensure more open government and more accountability.

"It has proved a useful tool for journalists and members of the public seeking to find out the truth on matters of legitimate public concern.

"Surely, freedom of information is the cornerstone of any democracy? Yet far too often we see decisions made in private, which is why any attempt to amend the Freedom of Information Act should be fiercely contested.

"The press has a crucial role as a public watchdog. That role must not be watered down."

FoI requests have: l Forced MPs to reveal how much they spend on travel in addition to other generous expenses l Discovered how the Government had been planning to water down money laundering laws to encourage American-style super-casinos l Uncovered more complete figures for British dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, and l Revealed excessive spending on contracts, consultancies and expenses claims as well highlghting failings in public bodies like the NHS.

l Sign the petition by emailing your name, job title and organisation to, or before March 8 you can make your views known by writing to the Department of Constitutional Affairs Information Rights Division, 6.16 Selbourne House, 54-60 Victoria Street, London, SW1E 6QW or email: