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Parliament's Constitutional Affairs Committee has categorically rejected the government's case for new arrangements in handling Freedom of Information requests

In a report into the government's proposed changes to the charging system for FoI requests, published on 25 June 2007, the committee said the government had failed to review adequately whether the existing arrangements balance public access rights with the needs of public authorities.

The government had used the findings of a review commissioned by the Department for Constitutional Affairs to argue for changes to be made to the FoI charging regime. This had found that "a small percentage of requests and requesters were placing disproportionately large resource burdens on public authorities".

It proposed that, in addition to the time spent locating, retrieving and extracting information, public authorities would also be able to take into account the time spent reading the information, consulting other bodies and considering whether or not to release it. Ultimately, the proposals would push more requests over the cost threshold at which authorities can legitimately refuse such cases.

Lambasting the DCA for the poor quality of information presented in its cost-benefit analysis, the committee said: "The focus of the DCA's work has been entirely on cost reduction, despite the absence of any evidence that such measures were necessary. There is no evidence that the DCA took steps to assess the benefits of the present regime."

Declaring in no uncertain terms that "there is no objective evidence that any change is necessary", the report went on: "The Ministry of Justice should now focus on improving compliance with the existing provisions of the FoI Act and on reducing the delays encountered by requesters seeking information."

A spokesperson for the Information Commissioner's Office told GC News: "The commissioner had strong reservations about the practicalities of the proposals and believes that the problem of vexatious requests, which impose excessive burdens on public authorities, can and should be addressed through the existing provisions in the FoI Act."

David Maclean MP's Private Member's Bill to exempt Parliament from the act is currently awaiting debate in the House of Lords. Commenting on the report in relation to the Bill, LibDem shadow justice secretary, Simon Hughes, said: "This report makes clear that David Maclean's attempt to change the rules and exclude Parliament from FoI requests was quite wrong, badly thought through and completely unjustified."

A MoJ spokesperson said the government was currently reviewing its proposals following the close of its second consultation and would respond in due course.

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

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