Government responds to Freedom of Information petition

The Prime Minister’s Office has issued a response to the Downing Street petition against the proposed changes to the Freedom of Information Act, which received 1,609 signatures:

The Government recognises the importance of public participation and
understanding of the functions of Government. The intention of the
changes proposed is not to hinder legitimate requests for information
or to reduce the effectiveness of the Act. An independent review
commissioned by the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs to
look at the impact of the Freedom of Information Act showed that a
small minority of requests and a small minority of requestors account
for disproportionate amounts of the cost of answering FOI requests. The
proposals are designed to address this issue and to ensure public
authorities can balance access to information for all with the delivery
of other public services.

On 14 December 2006 the Secretary of
State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, opened a public
consultation on the draft fee regulations. The Government is keen to
engage as many stakeholders as possible in this consultation. The
consultation paper is available at: Responses should be sent by 8 March 2007 to:

Department for Constitutional Affairs
Information Rights Division
6.16 Selborne House
54-60 Victoria Street


While the consultation is worth highlighting, I  find the rest of this answer unsatisfactory, especially the attempt to problematise the fact "that a
small minority of requests and a small minority of requestors account
for disproportionate amounts of the cost of answering FOI requests."

The review which the reply mentions found that:

There are five main categories of FoI requestor that can be identified within the one week sample of central government. They are:
• journalists;
• MPs;
• campaign groups;
• researchers; and
• private individuals.
Within each of these categories it is possible to make a further split into serial requestors and one-off requestors. Serial requestors account for a significant proportion of FoI requests made to central government particularly in the first four categories identified above. (FOI Review)

Is it really a surprise that say the BBC makes more requests than private individuals or that researchers make more requests than non-researchers. I’m not even sure how they make the latter distinction. Aren’t all FOI requestors researchers by definition?

The whole exercise of trying to discriminate between categories of requestor is highly dubious given that requestors are not (and should not be) obliged to give any information about the purpose of their requests.

It’s also arguable that the categories which produce the most serial requestors are precisely those best-placed to gather information of real public interest:

Then again, according to some accounts that is precisely why the Government is targeting them.

A cabinet paper leaked in July showed what Falconer was up to. In a bid
to throttle the FOI infant in its cradle, he decided many requests
would in future be rejected as too expensive to process. To head off
critics, he would commission a cost-benefit analysis. This would then
give him a "solid evidence base" to make the changes. The consultants,
Frontier Economics were paid £75,000 to come up with the figures. The
firm’s directors include Sir Andrew Turnbull, the former Cabinet
secretary – although Frontier Economics says he was not directly
involved in the report. (Guardian)

In response to the Government’s assumption that there is a cost problem in relation Freedom of Information, I can only highlight once again the findings of the Select Committee:

18.  We would be concerned
if there were cases where public authorities were spending weeks
finding information. Since authorities may already include this
time within their calculations of chargeable limits, we do not
consider that it would justify a review of the fees regulations,
but it would demonstrate a serious shortcoming in some public
authorities’ records management systems. (Paragraph 97)

19.  We recommend that
problems with ‘frivolous’ requests should be dealt with through
the existing provisions in the Act. We do not consider that this
is an appropriate reason for reviewing the fees regulations. (Paragraph

20.  We see no need
to change the fees regulations. There appears to be a lack of
clarity and some under-use of the existing provisions. We recommend
that the DCA publish the results of its internal fees review when
it is concluded and that it conducts a public consultation before
deciding on any change. (Paragraph 104) (Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs Seventh Report)

The paucity of the Government’s response only confirms me in my belief that this proposed changes to the FOI regulations should be opposed. Thanks to everyone who signed the petition and to all those who linked to it:

Accountancy Age Blog
Cherie Willers
Freedom of Information and Open Government Blog
Ideal Government
Indymedia Brum
John – Myspace Blog
Let’s Talk Common Sense
Martin Stabe
Martin Moore
Neville Hobson
Roy Greenslade
Ruscombe Green







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