Ministers to consider fees on 'free information'

The government is mulling over a freshly laid plan aimed at reducing the volume of information currently being released into the public domain under the Freedom of Information Act.

A new payment regime could be drawn up to impose a flat rate fee for requests, serving to “inhibit serial requesters”, as part of a wider “deterrent effect” to block “the most difficult requests.”

Such is the gloomy picture for openness revealed in confidential Whitehall papers obtained by The Sunday Times, which reportedly state ministers expect the moves to be unpopular and cause outrage.

In a memo dated July 17, Lord Falconer, the constitutional affairs secretary, suggests the FOI rules should change, so the state can more easily refuse requests on the grounds they are too costly.

Under the current regime, FOI requests are normally free unless the authority deems the time taken or volume of the request excessively high and therefore worthy of a monetary charge.

Such charges are capped at £450 for local authorities and £600 for central government departments.

These are passed on to the taxpayer when staff and civil servant time dealing with the request surpasses an ‘appropriate limit,’ as defined in the Act.

However Lord Falconer is proposing to add to the list of activities that constitute ‘staff time costs’, thereby making the total cost of the request more expensive and therefore easier to refuse.

His idea is to extend the current list of what the state can charge on each request - currently ‘determining what data the authority holds,’ ‘the time taken to retrieve and locate’ ‘any editing’ of the data, if necessary.

Officials estimate that if combined with an anticipated green-light for staff to “aggregate” requests when calculating costs, the move will deter at least 17 per cent of people whose requests require a full response.

In addition, the introduction of a single fee – which would incorporate an aspect of Ireland’s system – is expected to cull requests by a further 33 per cent, given it could potentially be imposed on all FOI requests.

The government is already considering how to break the news to affected parties, such as campaigners, journalists and citizens.

The memo states, “We will be able to argue that our commitment to FOI remains unchanged… but public access rights must be balanced against other demands on public resources.”


31st July 2006

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