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UK govt plans to hobble FoI, while hailing its success

Keeping costs down

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The Department for Constitutional Affairs is considering changes to the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act that would make it easier for public sector organisations to refuse requests on grounds of unreasonable cost.

The government has hailed the first year of the legislation as a "success". Central government received 34,000 FoI requests in the first year, which it says cost £24.4m to deal with. The wider public sector received at least 87,000 FoI requests. A report from Frontier Economics, commissioned by the government, puts the cost of dealing with these at around £11.1m.

FoI legislation says a request may be refused if it would cost more than £600 to source the relevant information. Now, the government wants to see "reading time, consideration time and consultation time" included in the calculation of the fee.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information said "coming at this early stage in the life of the legislation, it would be a very regrettable step to take...I think you will probably find that half of all the requests that are now being answered will be refused on cost grounds".

Similarly, the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs says in its seventh report that neither requesters of information nor public authorities were in favour of changes to the legislation "at this stage".

The select committee concluded that there was no need to change the fees regulations. It wrote: "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."

Despite this, Lord Falconer, Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, said the Act had been a great success:

"Freedom of Information has benefited the people - that's what it was intended for and we need to continue to build on its success," he said. "But Freedom of Information has to be balanced with good government. It would be wrong not to make adjustments in light of experience and make sure we get the balance right between the provision of services and the provision of information."

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