Charges for FOI requests?

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) is under scrutiny and last night Government plans to change the current fee regulations under the Act were revealed by BBC Newsnight.  Unfortunately the exact details of what these plans are, if they exist, not known.  However, it is worthwhile looking at the issue of charging for information requests more generally.

Freedom of Information has become a vital tool in our democracy.  It allows any person to approach a significant range of bodies that provide public services and ask them for information about the services they provide.  Each public authority has a legal obligation to provide the information unless it is exempt from disclosure (and to be exempt there generally has to be a very good reason) and have to do so “promptly”.  There is clearly a cost to providing answers to FOI requests and that currently lies with the public authority (although they can charge between £10 and £50 depending on the authority and the estimated cost of compliance).  Anecdotally most authorities do not choose to apply a charge when they could legally do so.  The reason for that is unknown; indeed it could be many different reasons.

There are some people who make requests for information that serve little or no public benefit at all, whether that be to a small or large section of the population on a local, regional or national basis.  Some requests are clearly designed to harass, annoy or disrupt the public authority or are part of an obsessive campaign against the public authority in question.  Undoubtedly charging for FOI requests might remove these requests for the public authority (although perhaps not the obsessive ones, some people who make such requests have spent significant amounts of money on litigation as well*).  However, there already exists an adequate provision within the FOIA to deal with such requests in the form of s.14 of the FOIA.  By applying s.14 to a request it means that the authority does not have to comply with the request (although it may ultimately have to defend its decision to the ICO if the applicant chooses to complain to the ICO about the application of s.14).

Looking at the ICO decision notices issued in just one month (February 2012) all of them which referenced section 14 (14 in total) were found in favour of the public authority.  In other words the Commissioner agreed with the authority deeming the request as vexatious.  While this is not, by any starch of the imagination, a scientific survey it does though show that if the public authority is correct in deeming a request as vexatious the Commissioner will agree with them.

However, vexatious (or annoying) requests are not the only reason as to why charges might be brought in.  The overall burden of FOI has increased on public authorities.  The number of requests has steadily increased since the introduction of the FOIA in 2005.  It takes time to read the request, to locate the information, to consider it for disclosure, to redact any information that needs redacted and to write the refusal notice where information is withheld (either by redaction or by withholding the entire document).  This will involve staff in different parts of the authority and has to be completed alongside other tasks.  However, FOI is essential in allowing people to see inside the public authorities that work for them and deliver services for them on their behalf.  It allows people to look at the decision-making process and to challenge unfair decisions where the decision-making process has been flawed.

In a time of austerity and cuts it might seem popular to remove the cost of FOI from the public authority by recovering it from the requester (who has already, let’s remember, paid for the information through general taxation) or to remove requests from the authority by placing charges which will discourage people from making a request for information in the first place.  However, this will ultimately be bad for democracy.

Those in Government, including the Prime Minister, cite all the information that is currently freely available such as salary information, expenses information and such like.  However, this information is only available as a result of FOI.  Had the FOIA not been in place this information is highly unlikely to ever have been released.  Expenses information has only really been widely published since the scandal over MPs expenses.  The public and journalists have driven transparency by requesting information under the FOIA.

There is of course one way that public authorities could reduce the cost of FOI without actually amending the Act and that is to proactively disclose more information earlier.  Making websites more accessible and much easier to navigate public authorities could proactively disclose much more information and it could be much easier for the public to locate.  Public Authorities are getting much better at this, but some have to be dragged into the age of transparency kicking and screaming the whole way.  Far too many authorities are still thinking “why should we publish this” rather than “why should we not publish this”.

What could the effect of fees for FOI requests be?  Well, that’s not really something we can know for certain until it’s too late (i.e. until fees are actually introduced).  It is not hard to imagine though that people would be discouraged by charges for information.  Research conducted by the Office of the Scottish Information Commissioner does back this up.  Research conducted by Ipsos MORI for OSIC suggests that 64% of people in Scotland would be discouraged from making a request if they were to be charged for it.  There is no reason to suggest that this would not be replicated around the country.

Gone are the days where you hear the information that the Government wants to tell you and in the way it wants you to hear it.  Official statistics tend to be quite high level and the devil is, as they say, in the detail.  FOI can drill into the high level statistics revealed by the State and get a better idea of what is really going on.

The uncertain nature of FOI requests as well will undoubtedly put people off requesting information.  If you knew that you had to pay a fee, even a small fee of say £10, to request information from the Government and all you get back is a refusal notice withholding all of the information you requested would you even bother trying to get the information out of the Government?  The answer is: probably not.  Even those who were able to afford the fee to make a request wouldn’t want to waste money when they can’t even guarantee a return.

The introduction of fees is a sledge-hammer to crack a nut and should be resisted at all costs.  It will significantly diminish information access right for ordinary members of the public and place squarely back into the hands of the State the information that you get to know.  In a time of austerity we can’t afford to lose access to rights that allow us to assess the decision-making process.

If you believe that information access rights are important and should be preserved then please sign this petition started by the SaveFOI campaign and consider writing to your MP to raise the issue with the.

*based on decision notices I have read relating to vexatious requests under both the FOIA and FOISA