Yesterday a debate was held in Westminster Hall on the Government’s response to the Justice Committee’s post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The debate was very poorly attended by MPs; but those few who did ensured a good quality debate was had.
Of concern though was the government’s response; and in particular its continued desire to see how it could include “thinking time” into the cost calculations under section 12 of the Act. Most are agreed that including such time into the cost calculations would significantly damage the Freedom of Information Act. Including such time into the cost calculations would not help reduce the burden of “frivolous” or “vexatious requests” as they are most likely to be simple requests which require little time. The requests they would affect are the ones where the public interest has to be considered; and in particular, those requests where the public interest is finely balanced.
We would begin to see more requests being refused simply because the complexity of establishing exactly where the public interest lies will take too long; that will undoubtedly mean information which could expose wrongdoing or corruption in public office is not released. That would fundamentally undermine the Act.
Another example of requests that might be covered are ones which produce a significant volume of information. Imagine another MPs expenses type request which produces volumes of recorded information. The information could easily be retrieved within existing cost limits; but when thinking time becomes included in the request such a request would be refused (not necessarily because it’s difficult to establish where the public interest lies, but because each piece of recorded information has to be considered for disclosure).
Allowing thinking time will also create a disparity between public authorities. It’s a subjective thing that is not easy to consider objectively. One FOI officer might be able to read the same document much more quickly than another FOI officer.
The introduction of “thinking time” would fundamentally undermine and significantly damage the FOIA and must be rigorously opposed by Parliament to ensure that the record of the FOIA as a strong piece of legislation is not destroyed.
In the words of Iain Gray MSP in a recent debate on FOI in the Scottish Parliament; “No Government likes FOI. FOI is always inconvenient, but it is the right thing.” The UK Government may not like FOI, but it is the right thing to do and they must not be allowed to weaken the Act.