Headlines: January 10th, 2006

Voluntary sector organisations have set out their opposition to the idea of fees being charged for dealing with requests under the Freedom of Information Act, which is being considered in Whitehall. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations says the Act is having a positive impact on lobbying and campaigning by its members.To assess the impact of the Act, which was fully implemented a year ago, the NCVO and Ashridge Business School conducted a survey of directors and chief executives of voluntary and community organisations. The survey found that while a number of them had made use of the Act more needed to be done to raise awareness of it and its potential.

Stuart Etherington, the NCVO’s Chief Executive, said, “FOI can be a real tool for voluntary organisations with limited budgets to access valuable information. Introducing fees for searches could mean that many voluntary organisations no longer benefit from the Act as they cannot afford to pay for the information they require.”

He added that lobbying is a key area of work for the voluntary and community sector and the FOI could be a valuable tool. The survey showed that almost half of requests made by the sector wanted to know how public bodies had arrived at decisions. This was likely to increase substantially in future, with almost three quarters of respondents saying they intended to ask for information about this. The survey also showed that the proportion of requests made to local authorities was likely to increase significantly.

Mathew Gitsham from Ashridge Business School said the examples of the United States and Australia, where similar legislation is more established, showed the Act had the potential for a major impact on the transparency of UK government and business. “It is set to become a powerful campaigning tool for the voluntary sector and what we have seen so far is only the tip of the iceberg,” he added.