Tuesday, November 07, 2006

FOIA Fees regulations review - a practitioner's view

I received this interesting view from a senior FOI practitioner from a government agency this week, they have agreed for me to publish their comment in anonymised form- illustrates that not all practitioners are in favour of the proposed reform and again reiterates the important point that the changes are central government led and not necessarily supported by the rest of the public sector and that is very early in the life of the FOIA to be considering changes. They also make the same point I made in my earlier post about whether there needs to be better application of existing rights to aggregate and other aspects of the FOIA(S14, S16).

My personal view on these proposals is mixed, but mainly unfavourable. I can see why central government want to make the change but this is really based on evidence from the first few months of the Act, which always were going to be challenging for large central government bodies given the retrospective nature of the Act. I think, at present, most public bodies have sufficient tools in place to manage the impact of wide-ranging requests but wonder whether enough of them use the aggregation option effectively. The duty to advise and assist applicants also offers an option for minimising the impact of requests while still achieving customer satisfaction. It seems too early in the life of new legislation to retrench like this, and I fear that were the proposed new fees regulations to come into effect and then were consistently applied by the public sector it would result in a far greater number of complaints being referred to the ICO (and, by extension, more work for the public authorities). I believe it will be especially difficult to account for reading/consultation time and that this aspect of any fees breakdown supplied by public bodies to information applicants will constantly be challenged. I also believe that there will be frequent problems with aggregation. Say, for example, a public body receives a request from a national newspaper in the new year and comfortably reaches the ?450/?600 appropriate fees limit owing to the complexity of the request. Would that public body really then prevent anyone from the newspaper making an additional request under FOI for a three-month period? Far from promoting openness and transparency, a change of the sort under consideration would seem to be inviting the media to mount a campaign about secrecy in the public sector.

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