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Cost of Information “Prices Right to Know Out of Public’s Reach”

Some official bodies have adopted “punitive charging schemes” demanding that the public pay as much as £100 for a page of photocopying, and high fees for the time spent providing information under an ‘open government’ initiative, according to the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

National Rivers Authority

The worst example is the National Rivers Authority, whose photocopying charge for providing information is £100 a page for a single A3 photocopy and £50 for an A4 copy. The charges are made for providing information under a government Code of Practice on openness and under the separate Environmental Information Regulations 1992. (1)  The NRA says its policy is “to properly maximise income”. The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel described these charges as “appalling” and said they amounted to “profiteering at the public’s expense”. The NRA says it is currently reviewing its charges.

Note: Since this survey was published both the National Rivers Authority and the Foreign Office have revised their charges under the code of practice.

Public Health Laboratory Service

The Public Health Laboratory Service says it would charge between £2,000 and £3,000 to identify local authorities who have reported salmonella food poisoning incidents involving eggs since 1988 and ask if they mind just their names being disclosed. The PHLS told food safety consultant Richard North that although it did not believe it was covered by the openness Code of Practice, its charges were in “the spirit of the Code”.

Health and Safety Executive

The Health and Safety Executive told the Campaign it would charge £45 an hour under the Code for answering questions about the safety of the British Nuclear Fuels THORP nuclear reprocessing plant.

Government Departments

Some government departments say they will do considerable work without charge in response to requests under the new Code of Practice on Access to Government Information. The Code, which is supervised by the Parliamentary Ombudsman, promises more openness in Whitehall. But other departments charge even for the simplest requests, if they involve any extra work on their part. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food , the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and theInland Revenue each asks for a flat £15 application fee, paid in advance, which is not refundable even if no information is ultimately disclosed – with an additional hourly charge if more than 2 hours work is needed. The Campaign says these fees are certain to deter applicants, and should be scrapped.

The Campaign criticises the Department of Health and the Home Office, which say that any request needing more than one hour of staff time will lead to charges of£20 an hour. “An hour is just enough for officials to get a cup of tea brewed and decide which filing cabinet the papers are kept in. Fees of this kind could have been designed to ensure no-one gets any information out of departments” Mr Frankel said.

But the Campaign says other departments are more helpful. The Cabinet Office, the Department of National Heritage, the Lord Chancellor’s Department, theScottish Office and most of the Northern Ireland Office waive either the cost of the first 5 hours work or the first £100 of any charges. Many requests to these departments will probably cost nothing. The Department of Trade & Industry and the Welsh Office also make no charge if the total costs are less than £100. However, if the costs exceed this limit they charge the full amount, including the first £100.

The extraordinary differences between departments’ arrangements show how arbitrarily charges have been set. The different charging policies mean, for example, that the Department of Health in England would charge £100 for providing information which would be available free of charge from both the Scottish Office Home and Health Department and the equivalent Northern Ireland department – which the Campaign says is an absurd discrepancy.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Pollution

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Pollution told nuclear consultant John Large that it would charge £993 per person-day for the time inspectors spent deciding whether information about radioactive waste could be disclosed under the Environmental Information Regulations. The Department of the Environment now says this charge was calculated on the wrong scale. The fact that this figure could have been put forward at all indicates something seriously wrong, says the Campaign.

These “user hostile” fees should be reviewed. “Only businesses will pay £20 an hour for civil servants’ time, let alone hundreds of pounds for a single request. For everyone else such charges will preserve Whitehall secrecy as effectively as any Official Secrets Act”, Mr Frankel said. The Campaign says fees are not needed to protect departments against massive requests as the Code allows them to turn down any request requiring “unreasonable diversion of resources”. It says full fees should be charged only if information is sought for commercial purposes, and waived for disclosures which throw light on public policy or are otherwise in the public interest.

Despite these fees, the Campaign says people should not be put off using the Code, as some requests will be free. In any case, fees will not be charged unless the applicant has first been given an estimate and agreed to pay. It advises people to complain about unreasonable fees to the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

 

Charging under the
Code of Practice – A Survey
 

Under the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information, Whitehall departments and certain other bodies are committed to releasing information (but, crucially, not documents) on request unless it falls into one of 15 exempt categories. Complaints about unjustified refusals, or unreasonable charges, can be made to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. The Code, which is not legally binding, was introduced this April by the former Minister of Public Service, William Waldegrave.

The Cabinet Office guidance on the Code says fees “act as an important reminder to the public that providing information costs money” and says charges should be made for requests which lead to additional work. But it says there should be no charge for information previously provided free or for information necessary “to the fair and accountable performance of the Department’s functions”. However, its guidance suggests this is intended narrowly, and only to apply to such things as the reasons for decisions affecting the applicant, descriptions of departmental policies, and for providing information on benefits, rights and standards of service.

Departments have been allowed to set their own fees, and the Campaign’s survey of these is shown below. It reveals enormous variation between departments.

Three departments, (MAFF, Inland Revenue and the Foreign Office) allow no free time and charge for all requests involving additional work.

The Home Office and the Department of Health waive charges only for requests taking less than one hour to answer, and charge £20 an hour for others. TheTreasury makes no charge for the first hour and charges £15/hour for the next two hours. Charges for further time depend on the grade of staff involved. The Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, imposes a flat fee of £50 for any request taking over one hour, and up to half a day.

The Department of Employment allows two hours free but charges £40 for the third hour and £20 an hour thereafter. OFWAT (Office of Water Services) also allows 2 free hours, then £20/hour. OFFER (Office of Electricity Regulation) makes no charge for requests taking less than three hours of a Higher Executive Officer’s time, or one hour of more senior staff. The Department for Education allows three hours free time, then charges a flat £50 for requests needing between 3 and 8 hours work, and a flat fee of £150 for requests taking between 8 and 13 hours.

Instead of waiving a certain number of hours, the Ministry of Defence and the Department of the Environment say they will waive fees under £50. The more senior the officials involved, the less time this will buy. If the costs exceed £50, the MOD will charge only the excess, not the full amount. However, the DOE will charge the full amount including the first £50.

The Department of Transport and Agencies of the Department of Social Security say they will only charge if more than four hours work is needed, with fees based on the average salary costs of staff involved.

The most generous, appear to be the Lord Chancellor’s Department, the Public Records Office and parts of the Northern Ireland Office which allow five hoursfree work, and then charge only for any additional time; and the Cabinet Office, the Department of National Heritage and the Scottish Office, which waive the first £100 of any fees.

The Department of Trade & Industry and the Welsh Office also make no charge if costs are less than £100 but, if they exceed this, charge the full amount, including the first £100. For the DTI £100 represents an average of 7 hours of less senior officials’ time and 3 hours of more senior grades.

The inconsistency is most striking in the Northern Ireland Office. Most NIO departments always waive the first 5 hours of costs, however much time the request takes. But if a request takes more thatn 5 hours some, such as the Northern Ireland Department of Economic Development, charge for the full time, including the first 5 hours.

Only a few bodies, including HM Land Registry, the Office of Fair Trading, the Data Protection Registrar and the Charity Commission said they either did not intend to charge at all or did not have the statutory authority to charge. The Chairman of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service told the Campaign: “While ACAS reserves the right to make reasonable charges for information I find it difficult to think of any situations in which we would want to do this”.

Footnote

The Environmental Information Regulations 1992 came into force at the end of 1992, implementing a European directive. They require public authorities to release environmental information on request, subject to a number of exemptions.

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