Blair government’s proposals to restrict FOI requests

In October 2006 the Labour government announced proposals to make it easier for public authorities to refuse Freedom of Information requests on cost grounds. The proposals would have severely restricted the amount of information that could be obtained under the Act.

A FOI request can be refused if the cost of dealing with it exceeds £600 for a government department, or £450 for any other public authority. In calculating whether these limits have been reached authorities can take into account the costs of searching for and extracting the requested information.

The government proposed two substantial changes to these rules:

First, authorities would have been able to include the cost of the time spent reading the information, consulting others about it and deciding whether it should be released. Requests that were complex, sensitive or raised important public interest issues would have been likely to be refused on cost grounds, regardless of their merits.

Second, the government proposed that the cost of unrelated requests made by the same individual or organisation to an authority could be aggregated and refused if their combined cost exceeded the £450 or £600 limits. This would have severely rationed use of the Act by the media, campaigning organisations and others.

The Campaign believed the proposals would have severely damaged the FOI Act.

On December 14 2006 the government published a consultation document containing draft regulations. These made some minor changes to the proposals that were initially announced. For example:

• authorities would have had to show that it was “reasonable in all the circumstances” to aggregate requests from the same applicant.

• in deciding whether it was reasonable, authorities would have taken account of the level of disruption caused by dealing with the requests, whether the applicant was acting in an individual capacity or for a business or professional reason (the implication being that it would be more reasonable to aggregate in the latter case), the number of requests the applicant had made in the past and whether the applicant had previously been “uncooperative or disruptive”. These factors would have fundamentally undermined the principle that disclosure decisions should be “applicant blind” and depend on the nature of the information sought, not the identity of the applicant.

• the cost that could be attributed to considering a request would be capped at £400. This meant that consideration time alone could not exceed the £600 limit for requests to central government. For other authorities the cap would be £300. The same caps would also apply separately to the costs of consultation, permitting a combination of both to take costs over the limit. The cost of the time searching for the information would also be counted.

• if the cost of consideration or consultation time was £100 or less, it could not be counted by a government department. For other authorities, the threshold was £75. But if these limits were exceeded, the full amount including the first £100 or £75 would be counted.

The consultation closed on 8 March 2007. The government initially indicated that it intended to introduce the new regulations in Parliament on 19 March 2007 – and bring them into force on 17 April. However, the Campaign notified the government that it considered the consultation had not been genuine and intended to judicially review it. Following this a second consultation exercise was announced on 29 March 2007, this time raising the wider issue of whether the fees regulations should be changed at all. This consultation ran until 21 June 2007.  At around this time Gordon Brown, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer but was poised to succeed Tony Blair as Prime minister, let it be known in Whitehall that he wanted the final decision on this issue to be left for him to take.

In a speech on liberty on 25 October 2007 Gordon Brown, by then Prime Minister, announced that the government had dropped the proposed changes to the FOI fees regulations. “We do this because of the risk that such proposals may have placed unacceptable barriers between the people and public information. Public information does not belong to the government, it belongs to the people on whose behalf it is conducted” he said. Instead, Mr Brown announced a consultation on extending the scope of the FOI Act to certain kinds of private bodies and on changing the 30 year rule.

The Campaign welcomed the government’s decision to drop the proposed fees regulations and the positive moves on FOI.

On this page you can read:

What the Campaign said about the proposals

What others said

Press coverage

What bloggers said

What Parliament said

What the Information Commissioner said

The government’s proposals


What the Campaign has said


What others have said

Responses to draft fees regulations consultation paper


Earlier responses (pre-consultation paper)


Press comment


Regional press


What bloggers have said


What Parliament has said


What the Information Commissioner has said


The government’s proposals


“we see no need to change the FOI Fees Regulations”
Alan Beith MP, Chair Constitutional Affairs Committee (Lib Dem)

“Looking at the new proposals, I fear that they will introduce new layers of procedural and, indeed, bureaucratic complexity.”
Richard Thomas, Information Commissioner

“It would be ironic if one advance of which Tony Blair can justifiably be proud, as he desperately searches for a legacy, should be snuffed out just as it is spluttering into life. He should abandon these regulations forthwith.”
Daily Telegraph

“there is at least one legacy of which Tony Blair could be proud: his Government’s introduction of the Freedom of Information Act…How sadly significant that even before he has left office it looks as if that reform is going to be utterly emasculated.”
Daily Mail

“the Freedom of Information Act, which came into effect in 2005, was…a rare and courageous piece of legislation…But less than two years into its life, ministers seem to have taken fright.”
The Times

“The act – itself a compromise – is generally working to the benefit of citizens. It would be an act of folly to emasculate one of the initiatives of which New Labour can feel justifiably proud.”

“Eleven years on, seven years after introducing an information bill and after just two years of, on the whole, successful implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, the government wants to rein in its wild child.”
New Statesman

“This is an insult to the public intelligence and a negation of one of the Labour government’s most important reforms.”
Financial Times

“There are better targets for penny-pinching than the cheap and effective Freedom of Information Act, but watering it down might make official lives a bit easier.”

“These regulations represent a direct attack on the spirit of the law, once heralded by Labour as the end of the culture of Whitehall secrecy.”

“the fundamental reason for wanting freedom of information has not yet entered the bloodstream of the Government. That is the truth of the matter.”
Tony Wright MP, Chair Public Administration Committee (Lab)

“Ministers will effectively be able to stop any request that they feel is inconvenient. It will be…a charter for public servants who want to be obstructive.”
Henry Bellingham MP (Con)

“To change the rules that allow public authorities to refuse FOI requests on costs grounds would be mean-spirited and certainly unworthy of my party, and of my Government, of whom I am immensely proud”
Don Touhig MP (Lab)

“What the government really hopes to save is not cash, but embarrassment.”
Richard Shepherd MP (Con)

“the idea of cutting a few million pounds by reducing the number of requests is shameful…The sums involved are nugatory compared with the political and democratic benefits flowing from the Act.”
Mark Fisher MP (Lab)

“Let us be in no doubt as to what the proposal is. It is a method of stopping any freedom of information request that is embarrassing or difficult from getting off square one.”
Norman Baker MP (Lib Dem)

“It is difficult to see this as anything other than a deliberate attempt to protect government from media and FOI scrutiny.”
Fleet St Lawyers’ Society

“We believe that the proposals…are fundamentally flawed.”
Society of Editors

“These [proposals] could have a hugely detrimental effect upon use of the FOI Act at local level.”
Newspaper Society

“This seems to subvert the original intentions of the freedom of information legislation.”

“These proposals risk weakening the power of the Act to promote robust accountability and sound public decision making.”

“the proposals would have a particularly damaging effect on a particular class of request namely those that are complex, voluminous or on matters of political sensitivity.”
Friends of the Earth

“As a piece of chutzpah, this takes some beating.”
David Leigh, Guardian

“If these restrictions are passed then stories of genuine public interest will not see the light of day.”
Roy Greenslade

“What is strikingly inconsistent about the government’s case is that is is based on the misapprehension that FoI requests are getting in the way of efficient government…”
Paul Francis, Kent Messenger

“Incredibly, given the way that the Act is already heavily stacked against the release of information, the Government is considering making it even easier for public bodies to refuse requests.”
Paul Dale Birmingham Post

“it would be a terrible backward step if after just two years, ministers succeed in putting up the shutters again.”
Cambridge Evening News

“If the government’s proposals are meant to kill off frivolous use of the act, they are likely to kill off much serious research in the process.”
Professor Duncan Tanner, University of Wales Bangor

“it is imperative that the UK implement best practice and set a good example for other Commonwealth member states.”
Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

Comments are closed.