Constitutional Affairs Committee: Chairman Alan Beith comments on Government response to Committee report into FOI:
The Committee welcomes the fact that the Government says it does not intend to introduce a flat fee for all FOI requests. However we do not support the changes which the Government is minded to introduce.
These would allow public authorities to include reading, consideration and consultation time in calculating the appropriate limit above which requests could be refused on cost grounds. This is a measure which is open to abuse by authorities. Authorities would have the discretion to decide how long they needed to consider whether to release information and we are concerned that requesters could be denied access to information whenever authorities considered it would take them too long to provide it. In the same way, if public authorities were permitted to aggregate requests made by any one requester for the purposes of calculating these limits, it could arbitrarily exclude otherwise legitimate requests, just because the requester was seeking other information from that authority at the same time.
These changes, if implemented, would fly in the face of the Government's stated desire of encouraging an open culture and have the potential to block important requests where it would be in the public interest to disclose information. I reiterate the Committee's opinion that we see no need to change the FOI Fees Regulations.
We will be reviewing in more detail the other issues covered in the Government's Response.
The fees issue was also raised under business of the house on the 12th Oct by MP Richard Shepherd
The Campaign for FOI has also published this press release, further to the one issued last week in the EDM
The Conservative Party have published a statement on their website:
"Oliver Heald, the Shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, declared: "I fear that the Government may be attempting to close down public scrutiny by curtailing the public's right to know with this more restrictive regime. The introduction of the Freedom of Information Act has clearly become too embarrassing for this disaster-prone Labour Government."
The Conservatives are rather strong on words less on clear policies on this area - they have never really made any clear statements about any improvements they would make to the Act. A few weeks ago I wrote to the Conservatives after David Cameron's comments recently about their aims to restore trust and openess - I've asked about the the role they see FOI playing in this agenda and whether it will be examined by Ken Clarke's democracy taskforce and whether concrete policy on FOI/Open Govt will be developed - so far I've not heard anything.
I too had been wondering like Martin over at Open Secrets about what Gordon Brown's approach or interest in FOI might be. Some googling could only find this speech from 1992 that he made on the topic.