Friday, July 07, 2006

Fears loom over costs review for info requests

Taken from the Press Gazette: "Lord Falconer has provoked fresh alarm that he plans to restrict the flow of information to journalists just as the Freedom of Information Act is "beginning to bite". The Department of Constitutional Affairs has confirmed it is pressing ahead with a review of the fees regime, despite opposition from a watchdog committee of MPs."

This is a major issue that appears to coming forward despite concerns expressed by many (including myself) in their evidence to the Select Committee inquiry into FOI about any changes that may restrict usage of the Act. My main point at this stage is for the DCA to carry out a public consultation and provide detailed research and evidence that shows the volumes/nature of certain types of requests that are causing the problems (that also couldn't be dealt with under current provisions within the Act). It is very early to start changing the fees regime when no clear patterns of usage have been built up and not taking into account the first year when there was a greater liklihood of misguided use and pent up requests that will always characterise bedding in of new legislation, that should then subside.

Read the current Fees Regulations and DCA Fees Guidance

Alasdair Roberts has written a useful short piece; "An open dialogue on FOIA fee reform" illustrating how increased or restrictive fees regimes have reduced FOIA usage in other jurisdictions

The excerpt below was my comment on fees from an article I published on the BBC website in January of this year:

But ministers have signalled they may reform fees, fearing too many requests are wasteful of public money - two examples being a request for the number of windows in government departments and the costs of toilet rolls.

Many public officials appear to share these concerns, as responses to the BBC's Have Your Say debate showed.

However, requests dropped by nearly 70% when the Republic of Ireland introduced a 15 Euro fee.

This is a balancing act. Taxpayers don't want to see public money wasted - but there is a fundamental right to ask questions and receive answers of public bodies in a democracy.

Whether these questions are "suitable" is subjective - the request for information about toilet rolls could have been made by a company undertaking serious research for a contract tender.

These concerns need to be put in context. Firstly, the Act says requests can be blocked if they are judged "repeated and vexatious".

Secondly, estimates for the cost of FOIA currently hit £100m. In contrast, the government spent £158m on advertising in 2004.

Over the coming year, the public will need to think about the true cost of Freedom of Information.

In the US, military officials once complained that Freedom of Information was a costly business. That was until they were told that it was still less than the cost of maintaining the military's golf courses.

Fees were a big issue pre 2005 and lobbying groups (particularly the Camapign for FOI) were able to exert pressure to gain the relatively well balanced regime we have at present. Read the history of the fees debate in this post I made in 2004 - Fees: reasons to be cheerful?

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