Concern over plan to charge for FOI

Campaigners have condemned a plan by ministers to charge people for making requests under the Freedom of Information Act as a “major step backwards” for the release of vital information.

Speaking to The Financial Times, Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, revealed his private sources told him ministers are considering unveiling a system of fees for the fledgling regime.

Less than a year after its introduction, anecdotal evidence obtained by the newspaper suggests civil servants view some requests under the Act as time-consuming and expensive.

Although the Department for Constitutional Affairs reportedly said a review of the FOI had always been due, it insists no decisions had yet been reached on whether to charge for requests.

However, Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor who oversees the FOI regime, has been a vocal critic of so-called ‘wilder’ requests under the Act, which have been known to centre on ministerial spending on toilet paper and taxis.

Government unease in disclosing certain information out of department databases has meanwhile been hinted at by campaigners, who report that some requests go unanswered, such as the total cost of consultancy services across Whitehall.

More positively, the 20 days public bodies and government has to respond to requests is said to have been kept to more rigorously, particularly in central government, where costs for photocopying information is often ignored.

Under the current FOI regime, public bodies can refuse a request for information if gathering and extracting the data exceeds £450, while government departments have a limit of £600.

While there is no evidence to suggest what structure a price system would take, campaigners believe ‘fees for information’ would seriously deter the number of requests and damage a critical yet nascent regime.

“It is worrying,” Mr Frankel said, referring to claims of payment by his sources. “While everybody is still adjusting to the introduction of the Act, to have fees come in would be a major step backwards. It would erect protective fences around public authorities.”

The government initially rejected the idea of imposing charges for disclosures, and any system of fees would require legislative change before implementation.

Freelance journalists are reminded if their FOI request was dealt with unreasonably - or if they believe they have been overcharged, they should ask the department to reconsider, before complaining direct to the Information Commissioner.


6th January 2006

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