Friday, December 10, 2004

DCA Press release: fees

Friday 10 December 2004 10:51

The Government has taken an important step to creating a simple system for the exchange of information between public bodies and the public under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which takes full effect on 1 January 2005.

The regulations about charges for information requested under the Freedom of Information Act were laid before Parliament yesterday.

There will be no charge for search and collation time for the vast majority of requests, and the fees regime will be easy for public bodies to operate.

Information Rights Minister Baroness Ashton said:

"The Freedom of Information Act has provided an unprecedented stimulus for cultural change in attitudes to information held by public authorities.

"This Government has maintained that there should be no financial barrier to people who want information about decisions taken about their children's schools, their hospitals, their police forces, and the other areas which affect their lives.

"The fees introduced today are designed to be easy for public bodies to operate, and to enable people to obtain most information for just the costs of printing, photocopying and postage.

"This system will be simple to operate. In the majority of cases, it will be immediately obvious that the cost will not exceed the appropriate limit. The public authority will, therefore, not need to estimate the cost of such requests in order to decide whether or not to reply."

Public bodies can only refuse to answer a request on the grounds of cost if it would cost more than £450, which equates to about two and half days of searching time. For central government, the limit is £600, roughly three and a half days searching time.

When calculating whether answering a request would exceed the appropriate limit, authorities can take account of the costs involved in the following activities:

* determining whether the information is held,
* locating and retrieving it, and
* extracting the information (including editing).

They cannot take account the costs of considering whether information is exempt under the Act.

Lord Falconer announced the fees regime in his speech to the Society of Editors annual conference in Newcastle on 18 October.

Notes to Editors

Lord Falconer's speech to the Society of Editors annual conference:

If a request would cost less than the appropriate limit, and there is no other basis on which it may be refused or otherwise dealt with, authorities must answer the request. The maximum fee that can be charged in these cases is limited to the specified costs of postage, printing and photocopying; most of the costs in these cases will be met by the public authority.

DCA is recommending that where the cost of communicating the information to the applicant is low, authorities should waive the charge for postage, printing and photocopying.

If a request would cost more than the appropriate limit, and the authority is not otherwise obliged by law to answer it, the authority may charge a fee if it chooses to answer the request. The maximum fee that may be charged is equivalent to the total estimated costs of:

* determining whether the authority holds the information, locating and retrieving the information, and extracting the information from a document containing it; and
* informing the applicant whether it holds the information and communicating the information to the person making the request (by means of postage, printing and photocopying.

Where the fee would be particularly high (for example, if the cost of complying with a request would exceed the appropriate limit), it should discuss with the applicant whether he or she would prefer to modify the request to reduce the cost.

If the applicant does not agree with the proposed fee, they can appeal to the Information Commissioner.

Public authorities do not need to provide information on request if it is otherwise reasonably accessible. Where information is made available in accordance with a public authority's publication scheme, it will be always regarded as being reasonably accessible, including where it is available only on payment.

Public authorities are allowed to include in their publication schemes a list of standard fees and charges for the services they provide under that scheme - all elements of a publication scheme are subject to the approval of the Information Commissioner.

The right to access information needs to be balanced by the need of public authorities to carry out their core duties. For this reason, the Act allows for public authorities to decline to comply with certain requests for information on the grounds of cost where these would be particularly expensive, even if the applicant is willing to pay for the information.

Press release ends

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