AddThis SmartLayers

Concerns voiced over possible change to FOI charging rules

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has voiced concerns over reports that the Government is considering new rules for bodies disclosing information under the FOI Act.

FOI requests are normally answered free of charge, but Government departments can refuse to answer a request if costs more than £600 to find the information and other authorities can refuse if it costs more than £450.

According to reports of a leaked cabinet document, authorities would be able to take the time officials spend considering whether to release information into account as well as the time they spend looking for it.

The Campaign claims the changes would mean more requests would be refused because the cost limit would be reached more quickly.

The Newspaper Society has urged regional papers which have made good use of the FOI Act to contact their local MPs about the threat of new charges.

It says these would be a complete contradiction to the Constitutional Affairs Committee’s recommendations earlier this year that there should be no such changes to the Act or fees. During a review the Committee received evidence on the potential effect of fee changes; hearing that in Ireland requests for non-personal information dropped by 75 per cent as a result of the introduction of a range of fees.

Official statistics show that 800 requests to Government departments were refused on cost grounds during 2005, but the Campaign says that if the new proposals had been in force this would have been more like 2,600.

The Campaign’s director, Maurice Frankel, said: “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.”