Should Freedom Of Information be free?

5 Jun

Taking the cue from the government, EDDC is proposing a fee for Freedom Of Information requests that take more than 18 hours’ of staff time. The officers at the Knowle have clearly been overwhelmed by the numbers of FOI requests received (see list for EDDC at http://www.whatdotheyknow.com)

An e-mail sent out by Unlock Democracy  describes some of the implications:

‘The government is proposing to introduce new restrictions to limit the ability of people to make use of the Freedom of Information Act. They could have a devastating impact on our right to know what our government is up to.

The Freedom of Information Act has revealed important pieces of information that otherwise would have been kept secret – not least of all the abuse of the parliamentary expenses system in 2009. We’re working with the Campaign for Freedom of Information to stop these changes from happening [1]. Will you write to your MP today to ask them to take a stand against these proposals?

Click here to write to your MP.

The government is proposing four key changes to the Freedom of Information Act:

  1. Authorities can currently refuse FOI requests if the estimated cost of finding and extracting the information exceeds certain limits. The government wants to allow them to also count the time they spend considering a request. This will make it much easier for authorities to refuse any claim involving new, complex or contentious issues.
  2. Lowering the cost limits themselves (These are currently £600 for government departments and £450 for other authorities).
  3. Charges could be made for appealing to the Information Rights Tribunal. These may deter requesters from pursuing well-founded appeals and slow the development of case law.
  4. Authorities would be allowed to refuse unrelated requests from the same individual or organisation if their combined effect is too time consuming. This could affect the ability of local newspapers, local organisations and even MPs to obtain information on a range of issues from one authority.

The government claims that this is intended to prevent a handful of individuals who make “industrial” use of the Act “placing disproportionate burdens on public authorities”. Despite this, three of their core proposals would make it easier for authorities to refuse all Freedom of Information Act claims, while the fourth has already been dealt with by new guidelines from the Information Commissioner.

Any one of these measures would have a potentially serious impact on the operation of the Act. Together they would substantially undermine the Act.

Government and public authorities don’t like the Freedom of Information Act because of the additional scrutiny it subjects them to. Yet time and again important information has emerged as a result of journalists and other individuals exercising their right to know.

The House of Commons Justice Select Committee recently declared the Freedom of Information Act to be a “success” and submitted its own ideas to the government on how freedom of information can be approved [2]. We can’t allow to government to try and turn back time in this way by creating scares about abuse and it’s cost. Please write to your MP today to ask them to take action.

Click here to write to your MP.

Many thanks,

Alexandra Runswick
Deputy Director, Unlock Democracy

[1] See more about the impact of these proposals from the Campaign for Freedom of Information: http://www.cfoi.org.uk/edm80.html
[2] http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/justice-committee/news/foi-report/’

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