Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Sunday Times: Government U-turn on free information

This fairly worrying story appeared in the Sunday Times today, it appears the stories from earlier this year about possible changes to the fees regime may be true and fixed fees are on the agenda:

MINISTERS are to perform a U-turn on their commitment to open government by seeking to reduce the amount of information released to the public.
A confidential cabinet paper reveals that 18 months after Labour introduced laws allowing free access to government documents, it wants to block “the most difficult requests......He is also considering introducing a flat rate fee for requests, which he argues will have a “deterrent effect” and “inhibit serial requesters”. He estimates this would cut information requests by a third.

In a memo on July 17, Falconer admits that the government will come under fire for the moves. ....To counter critics, he is to commission a cost-benefit analysis of the effect that a fees regime would have. He argues that this will give a “solid evidence base” to make changes after the summer recess.

The proposal is a deeply worrying development for the future of the FOIA at such as an early stage in its life plus we are still essentially in the dark about what is being proposed (this is just a leak) and no form of consultation with the FOI user community has taken place. The cost-benefit anaylsis whilst sounding a good idea needs to be carried out by an organisation completely independent of Government otherwise the benefits could assessed in a completely subjective manner.

As an academic I want to be shown evidence (in detail) about the what the problems are (across all sectors, not just central government - which Lord Falconer seems to be focused on) and then assess the range of options available , taking a holistic and long tern view of the possible effects of each of the options. Why has there been no public consultation and information about the fees review?

The approach in the leaked paper runs contrary to much of the evidence given the to the recent Select Committee Inquiry into FOI and the final conclusion of the Committee.

The bottom line is that while the changes may stop for example an "irritating" freelance journalist sending lots of requests about ministerial wine consumption, the changes (especially a flat fee) may also pu off someone on benefits sending a request about a crucial issue that really does effect their quality of life e.g housing. There is no mention of any fee waivers for certain groups.

I would in theory not be against some changes to the fees regime if they were proportionate and based on evidence, however the proposals put forward to Cabinet would be very much a sledgehammer to crack a nut ("Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?"). Read Al Roberts' brief overview of the effects of flat fees in other jurisdictions. (Al is an associate professor at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University and an Honorary Senior Research Fellow of the Constitution Unit, UCL London).

The issue of adding the cost (to the set limits of £450/£600) of "reading time" for officials to assess information (for exemptions etc) will end up being very subjective - it will be very hard for the Information Commissioner to decide about application of the cost calculations and further delays and complications in the appeal process will be likely. The Information Commissioner himself in his evidence to the Select Committee inquiry into FOI stated: "We think the existing regime (fees) has worked pretty well from the perspective of requesters and, indeed, from my own office; so we are comfortable with the existing regime....It is extraordinarily difficult for an office like mine to get involved in how much time was being spent on considering a case, at what level inside the Department, what is reasonable to charge on a per hour basis? The existing fees regime does have all the advantages of being simple, clear and straightforward and not being a deterrent" (see Q99 and Q100)

I would suggest that if you feel these type of proposed changes are unfair, start to lobby MPs about forming opposition against the proposals: a similiar position did arise when a harsh fees regime was proposed in May 2004 pre the 2005 implementation: an Early Day Motion was signed by over 180 MPs and the Guardian ran some high profile stories to highlight the issue. Read the 2004 background. The blog in 2004 offered a letter to download and send to MPs - we can try and do something again - as blogs are much more prevelant now I would also call for blogs to cover and feature the issue, perhaps a banner image can be developed as well for blogs to use.

The BBC have also covered the story and featured the DCA's response:

A Department for Constitutional Affairs spokeswoman said: "We said we would review fees and a proper review covers everything.

"However, it is unlikely that there will be a flat rate for Freedom of Information requests."

Lord Falconer said the government was "not keen" to stop people obtaining information that could embarrass the government.

"What you find is that some requests ask for a list of files, then say 'could you disclose all of the files', unaware of what's in them and simply keen to have a fishing exercise," he told the BBC's News 24 Sunday programme.

Read my previous posting about possible changes to fees and the DCA's approach to frivilous requests

There is a discussion thread on the topic at the new UKFOIA forum (I mentioned a blog reader had started this forum a few weeks ago - it hasn't been used much yet - now might be a good time).

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