Campaign challenges refusal to disclose FOI costs survey

The government’s new proposals to restrict use of the FOI Act are based in part on a survey carried out in January 2006 of the time needed to respond to FOI requests. This data was used to estimate the costs of the FOI Act and the possible savings from new restrictions. (These estimates are contained in a report commissioned by the Department for Constitutional Affairs from consultants ‘Frontier Economics’) .

Two months before the government’s proposals were published, the Campaign made an FOI request for the data obtained during this survey.

The request was refused by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. The DCA maintained that the information fell within the FOI exemption relating to the “formulation and development of government policy” and that the balance of public interest favoured withholding the information.

However, the survey merely describes the numbers of requests made to each government department during the week in question and provides a breakdown of the time needed to respond to them.

The Campaign has now asked the DCA to review its refusal, pointing out that (a) the requested information is largely factual (b) the FOI Act requires departments to have regard to “the particular public interest” in disclosing such factual information (c) the Act envisages that such information will be disclosed before decisions are taken (d) the DCA’s decision to refuse the request appears to completely disregard its own guidance on the exemption (e) access to the data at the time of the request could have prevented the Frontier Economics report from incorporating at least one exaggerated estimate of the volume of FOI requests being made (f) other important opportunities to make use of the data have already been lost.

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