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Info chief to clamp down on silly FOI requests

'No, we won't tell you how much toilet paper is used at Number 10'

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Information Commissioner Richard Thomas is to announce plans to deter vexatious requests made under the Freedom of Information Act.

At a conference in London, he will say that such cases can waste public money and jeopardise the reputation of the Act.

Speaking on BBC Radio Four's Today progamme, Thomas said that examples were a request to 10 Downing Street about the amount of toilet paper used and a request to Hampshire Police about the number of eligible bachelors in the force.

His office is developing further guidelines to help public bodies resist pointless requests. A Charter for Responsible FOI Requests will help to prevent requests which have no serious purpose or value, impose disproportionate burdens, or have the effect of harassing the public body.

"I am sympathetic towards public authorities that refuse to deal with vexatious requests which clearly serve no reasonable purpose. But I am surprised that public authorities are not making more robust use of the existing provisions under the Act for excluding vexatious requests," Thomas said.

Thomas will also tell the annual FOI Live conference that Freedom of Information is delivering transparency and accountability across the public sector and reinforcing good government.

In his keynote speech the commissioner will remind public bodies that they serve citizens and will urge them to recognise that Freedom of Information requires a positive approach to openness.

Thomas will say he fully recognises the need for "private space" for policy-making in suitable cases, and will warn that public bodies must treat each case on its own merits. The Information Commissioner's Office has made it clear that public interest arguments for non-disclosure must be convincing in each case.

"After nearly two and a half years, Freedom of Information is delivering real benefits. There is a presumption of disclosure, unless there is a genuine reason to withhold information. This must trump any instinct of unnecessary secrecy which simply suggests a public authority has something to hide," Thomas said.

"Of course there are bound to be times when the Freedom of Information Act may be uncomfortable. But openness – even where it reveals uncertainties, disagreements or embarrassments – treats citizens as grown ups and reflects the realities of public life. People respect honesty, not cover up."

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

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