New government plans to change the way Freedom of Information requests are costed have been criticised by regional press industry leaders.
Currently councils and other public authorities cost each request individually, but under the proposed changes, they would be able to group together the cost of requests from indidviduals or groups – including journalists working for the same newspaper.
This means that more requests are likely to refused on the grounds of cost.
The Newspaper Society and the Campaign for Freedom of Information have protested against the plans, claiming the changes would hit regional newspapers and MPs hardest.
The issue was highlighted at a debate about FOI at Westminster Hall, where Justice Committee Chairman, Sir Alan Beith said the committee echoed the groups’ particular concerns about the potential effect on local newspapers.
It recommended that what it considered “subjectively measured” activities, such as reading and consideration time, should not be included in the time to calculate costs.
But, Sir Alan said, the government had taken a different view and said they would make ‘efforts to reduce burdens’ arising from what they labelled ‘industrial’ use of the act.
“We are concerned … particularly about the potential effect on local newspapers,” he said.
“My area has a unitary authority, and if a local newspaper wanted to follow up stories about several different local services — education, highways and social services—it could quickly fall foul of that aggregation.
“Any charge designed genuinely to recoup costs would deter genuine requests, and few kinds of charging would deter frivolous requests or, for that matter, what the Government call industrial requests.”
He added that the possibility of charging people to go to the Information Tribunal was also concerning.
Justice Minister Helen Grant confirmed to the House of Commons that the government was to resurrect the proposals surrounding FOI.
“The Government will also look at other options to reduce the burden on public authorities in relation to the cost limit, including where one person or group of people’s use of FOIA to make unrelated requests to the same public authority is so frequent that it becomes inappropriately or disproportionately burdensome,” she said.
The Campaign for FOI will hold an open briefing for journalists and campaigners on February 18 at 2pm at The Human Rights Action Centre in New Inn Yard, London.