Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Constitutional Affairs Committee evidence published

An uncorrected transcript of the evidence given by the Information Commissioner on the draft fees regulations to the Constitutional Affairs Committee on 20 March has been published.
"Q31 Mr Khabra: Last year you told the Committee, Mr Thomas, that you believed that the existing fees regime was working well and that it had "all the advantages of being simple, clear and straightforward and not being a deterrent." You say that much of the "mischief", as you called it, which the draft regulations are apparently designed to address can be addressed using the existing provisions of the Act. What then do you believe will be the actual impact of the proposed regulations?

Richard Thomas: Thank you very much. That is a very large question. I will do my best to address it. You are quite right, I did say last year (and I stand-by the words) that I believe the existing fees regime is simple, clear and straightforward and does not appear to act as a deterrent to requesters. In overall terms, I do not consider freedom of information is proving to be burdensome for public authorities, and I think the benefits, especially in terms of improved transparency, accountability and democracy are clear. I am mainly concerned about the practicalities of the proposals which are now under consideration. I recognise that the amount of what I call genuinely public interest information that would be released into the public domain will be significantly reduced, but I am concerned about the practicalities for myself, for my office and for public authorities generally. You refer to the existing provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. A very important provision is section 14 of the Act, which sets out an exclusion for a request which is vexatious or for a repeated request. I have to say very frankly to this Committee that I am surprised that government departments and other public authorities are not using these provisions' exclusion for vexatious requests to any great extent. If there is a problem with this sort of request, then why is it that we are not being presented time after time with refused requests on the ground that they are vexatious? If there is a real problem in this area, then I make no secret, it is my view that a more robust use of the existing exclusion would to a very significant extent address the mischief at which the new cost proposals are directed. It is nearly two years now since my office published detailed guidance on section 14, which took a liberal interpretation, if you like, of section 14 and made it clear that we will be as supportive as possible of responsible public authorities dealing with genuine vexatious requests. We have also since that time issued quite a number of decision notices upholding the conclusion of a public authority in a particular case that a particular request was vexatious. I think we have shared some details of these with the Committee for the purposes of today's inquiry. Looking at the new proposals, I fear that they will introduce new layers of procedural and, indeed, bureaucratic complexity. I think it would be very difficult for public authorities themselves, and certainly for my office, to start to measure and assess the reading and especially the consideration time of civil servants and other public officials. Civil servants do not keep time sheets, there is no regular record of exactly how much time is spent on which activity, but these draft regulations seem to indicate that that sort of substantiation of how much time was spent in reading, consulting, considering a particular request will be needed. I have to say, I am anxious (and I wish to share the anxiety with the Committee) about the volume of complaints which we are going to receive under the new regulations, because there will be the scope for an appeal to come to my office. If somebody believes that the new regulations have been improperly or incorrectly used to exclude their request, then they will come to my office and we will have to investigate, and, unless we are properly funded for this, there is a real prospect that our existing scarce resources will have to be spent with resolving these difficult, complex disputes about the new regulations, about the time being taken to deal with cases rather than resolving the substantive issues about what information should be disclosed under the terms of the Act. So, a long answer, I am afraid, to your question, which was a very wide-ranging question, and I make no secret that we do have anxieties about the practical implications of these proposals."
The Committee also heard evidence from Rob Evans of The Guardian and Tim Jones of the World Development Movement on how they had been using the Act.

Read the full transcript.

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