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New information charging rules would “reverse openness trend”

The Campaign for Freedom of Information reacted with concern to reports that the government is considering measures to reduce the amount of information disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act.

At the moment FOI requests are normally answered free of charge, apart from photocopying costs. Government departments can refuse to answer a request if it would cost more than £600 to find the information and other authorities can refuse if that cost exceeds £450. This corresponds to 24 hours of staff time for government departments and 18 hours for other bodies. The government is now considering making it easier to refuse FOI requests on cost grounds.

According to reports of a leaked cabinet document, authorities would be allowed to take into account the time officials spend considering whether to release information as well as the time they spend looking for it. This means that the cost limit would be reached more quickly and more requests would be refused on cost grounds – even if the information itself was not exempt.

The Campaign’s director, Maurice Frankel, said:

“ These proposals would make it harder for requesters to ask penetrating questions and easier for authorities to avoid scrutiny. As the Act begins to bite we have finally begun to see some weakening of the traditional obstacles to openness. The last thing we need is to reverse this process by giving authorities better armour to defend themselves against requests. Instead of making it easier to refuse requests, government should be encouraging authorities to become more open by publishing more information without being asked, handling requests more expertly and organising their records more efficiently.”

The leaked document, reported in this week’s Sunday Times (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2087-2291779,00.html) says that at least 17% of requests which are now being dealt with would be refused on cost grounds in future. Official statistics show that some 800 requests to government departments were refused on cost grounds during 2005. The Campaign said that if the new proposals had been in force more than three times that number, over 2,600 requests, would have been refused.

New report highlights Act’s benefits

The benefits of the Act are highlighted in a new report just published by the Campaign for Freedom of Information (available on https://www.cfoi.org.uk). This summarises 500 press stories resulting from disclosures during the first year of the UK and Scottish FOI laws. The Campaign says “these 500 stories demonstrate the wide range of previously confidential information being disclosed and the impact the new legislation is having. The government should not be undermining this move towards greater openness”.

Further information:

Campaign for Freedom of Information: 020 7490 3958

 

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