Thursday, December 16, 2004

Fees: reasons to be cheerful?

There has now been some time to reflect on the fees regulations that were finally published by the DCA last week. It was back in May when the debate about fees first hotted up when a Treasury paper suggested that a harsh charging regime should be used (in comparison to pervious drafts related to charging 10% of the proscribed costs plus disbursements). The minutes of the fees working group I requested in August created some headlines about the possible options being considered and the lack of final decision as the January 2005 deadline loomed ever closer. The DCA have dragged their heels badly on this - it is a bad situation for public authorities to be in one week before Xmas. To make things worse the Regs are still not on the DCA site and there is no sign of the additional guidance specifically for fees.

If you are struggling with the wording of the Regs: there is a clear explanation in the DCA Press release

Fees: the requester perspective
From the perspective of the Freedom of Information Act user the fees look like fair system. Most requests should be free and the cost estimation rate at £25 an hour seems reasonable based on overseas comparison. The main issue at stake is that costs for most requests should not be a barrier to use. The problems I feel that may emerge will be in inconsistencies across the public sector in the way the costs up to the limits will be calculated - a request to one authority with excellent procedures and systems may be met and at another refused because of the cost limit. Another issue that may cause a problem is that as answering requests over the £600 and £450 limit is discretionary and again inconsistencies may emerge.

To users of the Act the main advice will be to monitor fees and charging when you are putting in multiple requests across many authorities - if you feel there are unjustifiable differences between charging policies raise it with the authority concerned and enter into a dialogue. In the early days we will have to expect some differences and pointing them out to authorities can only be a good thing. If you don't get anywhere on this route, complain to the Information Commissioner.

If you are part of a group and you don't want to requests to be aggregated together, be aware of the 60 rule in the fees regs, some careful timing of your requests will help.

All authorities should clearly explain their charging policies on their websites or other information points. The policies should also say when the disbursement charges (e.g. photocopying or postage) may be waived.

As £25 an hour can be charged it will important that you are not passed on the costs of poor information management. It will be interesting to see if the performance of authorities who have invested heavily in elecronic document and records management systems and search tools perform better in locating and retrieving information.


Comparing briefly to overseas we can see the UK regime is as generous or more generous. Ireland charges 15 Euro standard fee with other charges on top. (also 74 Euro for an internal review). In Canada each request filed under the Access to Information Act costs $5 (money order or cheque payable to the Receiver General of Canada*). There may be additional charges if copying, computer processing or search and preparation time is required. (The first five hours of search and preparation are free.) Most requesters pay no fees beyond the initial $5 charge. In Canada 2002-3 average fees collected per completed request was $12.76. In the US there is no initial fee to file a FOIA request and, in the majority of requests made no fees are ever charged. By law, however, an agency is entitled to charge certain fees, which depend on the category of requester you fall into.

Fees: the public authority perspective

The following next steps will be important for public authorities in preparing for January:

-Drafting of formal fees policy
-Drafting of fees letter/notice
-Deciding on charges for disbursements such as photocopying and postage and waivers e.g first 20 pages free
-Deciding whether to still to fulfill requests over the £600 or £450 limits
-Deciding at what point not answer requests over £600 and $450 e.g stop at £1000
-Development of charging mechanisms: invoicing, e-payment or cheque etc. Balance will need to made with regards the costs of processing an invoice (this could be as much as £40.)
-Ensuring there are common approaches in relevant parts of your sector, geographical regions
-Development of fees appeal mechanisms and refund arrangements
-Make sure all references to the old 10% mecansim in the draft are removed from any guidance -internal or external

Some key links and documents about fees:

-The Final Fees Regs
-DCA Press release
-Guardian story on the Treasury's suggested fees regime(May)
-Guardian fees working group story (August)
-General DCA guidance: fees section (further fees guidance still to come)
-My Code of Practice request about fees
-Powerpoint slides from DCA
-Irish Fees "a disincentive"
-Irish fees
-Canadian Act fees section
-Canadian Fees policy
-Fees under US FOIA

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