Headlines: October 17th, 2006

GOVERNMENT SAYS ‘NO’ TO FLAT FEE FOR INFORMATION REQUESTS

 

The Government will not allow public bodies to charge a flat rate fee for handling requests under the Freedom of Information Act but it is looking at changes that might mean more requests could be rejected on cost grounds.

Lord Falconer, the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, responded to a Constitutional Affairs Select Committee report on the FOI’s first year by setting out the Government’s commitment to building on the success of the Act but he also indicated how the issue of the costs of dealing with requests might be met. No changes are expected until the Department for Constitutional Affairs has studied in detail a report from economic consultants.

The Committee’s inquiry found that the Act meant a significant amount of new information was being released and that it was often being used in a constructive and positive way by a range of organisations and individuals. Lord Falconer welcomed that assessment and said the Act was historic in allowing the public a statutory right to information held by over 100,000 bodies across the public sector.

“The FoI Act has put citizens on a more equal footing with the institutions that serve them and brought government closer to the people. They can access information about their local community in the UK as never before, information about the performance of their local hospital, their local environment, their local schools,” he added.

Freedom of Information, he said, had to be balanced with good government and it would be wrong not to make changes in the light of experience to ensure there was a balance between the provision of services and the provision of information. To this end the Department has also published an independent review of the impact of the Act carried out by consultants Frontier Economics who have examined the cost of delivering FoI across central government and the public sector as a whole.

Based on the report, the Government says it is considering allowing the inclusion of the costs of reading time, consideration time and consultation time in the calculation of the full bill for dealing with a request. At the moment there is a limit of 600 pounds, above which requests can be refused on cost grounds. Lord Falconer made it clear, however, that the Government was not minded to introduce a flat rate fee. The economic report will be considered in more detail before any changes to the Act are brought forward.