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Government backs down on controversial FOI fees change

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The UK Government has dropped controversial proposals that critics said would have neutered the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. Changes to the charging structure that would have allowed bodies to refuse more requests will not now go ahead.

The move comes amid significant opposition from pressure groups and media companies, who say the changes would have hindered access to information about the activities of public bodies. Of the 324 people or organisations who responded to the Government's consultation on the plan, 73 per cent objected to it, the Ministry of Justice said.

"Many respondents considered the proposals contrary to democratic process," said the Ministry's summary of survey responses. "Those respondents generally argued that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 has become a feature of British democracy by holding public authorities to account and by creating greater transparency in decision-making and the use of public resources.

"The proposals would, it was thought, diminish the effectiveness of the Freedom of Information Act. Many respondents believed that the proposals unfairly targeted bodies acting in the broad public interest such as media and pressure groups."

The Ministry said it would not proceed with the proposed changes. "Taking account of the range of responses received, the Government has decided to make no changes to the existing fees regulations," it said. "It does intend, however, to deliver a package of measures to make better use of the existing provisions to improve the way FOI works and to meet the concerns particularly of local authorities."

The Government had proposed the changes because it believed that FOI requests were costing central and local government too much in time and money, and that many of the requests were vexatious.

The Ministry said it would work with the Information Commissioner's Office to promote its guidance on using existing rules to block vexatious requests or ones that harass the public body. It said it would produce its own guidance on the fees structure for public bodies, and would encourage public bodies to release more information voluntarily.

Most FOI requests are free, but once charged-for activity reaches a certain ceiling the request can be refused to stop FOI bills soaring. The threshold is £450 for local authorities and £600 for central government.

The proposals were to include more of the activity around a request on a billed-for basis, meaning that many more requests would reach the ceiling and therefore be refusable.

More controversially, the proposal bundled together requests from the same organisation under a single ceiling, meaning that media organisations as large as the BBC could only have been allowed a single request every three months.

"The Government does not believe that more restrictive rules on cost limits of FOI requests are the way forward," said Prime Minister Gordon Brown today, announcing the climbdown. "We do this because of the risk that such proposals might have placed unacceptable barrier between the people and public information."

Copyright © 2007, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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