Councils call for FoI fees, lower cost limits, public interest tests and attack 'lazy journalism'

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Local authorities have called for Freedom of Information requests to be subject to fees and are seeking lower cost limits to make it easier for them to refuse questions.

In a response to the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information the Local Government Association has also said that requestors should have to set out a public interest case when framing their FoI requests.

Lowering the cost limit would mean that complex requests, and those which require more effort to answer, are more likely to be rejected.

The body, which represents local authorities, told the commission that the "overwhelming" view of its members is the "burden" of FoI should be reduced.

And one council has told the commission it should be given powers to reject requests considered "lazy journalism".

The commission today published a selection of the more than 3,000 responses it has received in response to its inquiry.

The LGA said local authorities want "stricter controls" and/or a reduction in the fee limit "to focus on disclosure of information on grounds of genuine public interest, rather than on commercial or research interest".

It has suggested FoI requestors should have to "set out the public interest… with the aim to eliminate the number of frivolous, commercially or research driven requests".

The LGA suggested the appropriate time limit to be spent on an FoI answer should be reduced from 18 hours to eight hours, equivalent to a day's work.

It also said that the estimated cost of answering requests should include time spent "redacting information".

The LGA said councils should also be able to aggregate requests from individuals to in order to reject on time and cost grounds.

Under the heading "Research and Round Robin requests", the LGA said: "Local authorities receive an increasing number of requests for research purposes, predominantly from journalists, students or businesses, often for information that is already published on council websites or falls outside the function of the authority.

"Requestors are effectively using the FoI route as a short cut to undertaking proper research.

"As every request has to be logged and responded to, this places an additional burden on authorities. Round Robin requests are frequently sent to a number of authorities. Answering them can involve substantial cost to the sector. For example, a request submitted to 200 authorities that takes each authority 15 hours to complete, at £25 per hour, costs the taxpayer £75,000."

The LGA’s response also said the FoI Act should be changed to protect “sensitive information” by strengthening section 36 of the act and “preserve a safe space for public bodies to consider policy options in private, comparable to that currently afforded to central government”.

The cost of FoI

Last month, a Press Gazette investigation suggested the cost to local councils of FoI is far smaller than their expenditure of PR and communications. It also found that many local authorities do not keep a record of the cost of FoI.

However, a number have responded to the commission with cost estimates, and many have asked for the introduction of FoI fees.

The LGA said "feedback from councils suggests" requests have increased by 39 per cent between 2011/12 and 2014.15. It said the average council receives 934 requests, with nearly half of these coming from the media, business and non-governmental organisations. 

It highlighted Broadland District Council as a case study, finding that its average FoI response time was one hour and that, assuming a cost of £25 an hour, the act cost it £25,000 in 2014.

Cotswold District Council said it spends 2,738 hours a years on FoI, costing an estimated £49,000. West Oxfordshire Council said it spends 2,323 hours a year on FoI, costing £43,000. 

However, these councils, in a joint submission, said: "If FoI requests were confined to enquiries from the press, lobby groups and charities, private individuals and businesses pursuing genuine concerns we would consider that the burden imposed by the legislation was reasonable.

"However, given the amount of officer time which is being taken up with responding to marketing-related enquiries (whether to market to us or other individuals), we are concerned at the burden that the FOI Act has created."

East Northamptonshire Council said the average FoI takes 73 minutes to answer and its estimated cost of FoI was more than £16,000 a year.

Flintshire County Council put its estimated cost at £100,000 a year, minus "redaction costs and resources, time considering exemptions, or time considering internal reviews".

Newcastle City Council said it spent an average 7.5 hours per request, meaning the 1,312 received in 2014/15 cost £246,000.

Thanet District Council said the average request costs £67 in staff time and that its 2014/15 estimate was £65,000.

West Somerset Council and Taunton Deane Borough Council said in its submission: "If we assume the figures from the March 2012 study by the Ministry of Justice, that an average request made to ‘other public authorities’ costs an average of £164 in staff time [based on an average for numerous public authorities, not just local councils], last year alone FOI requests to this Council have cost in the order of £115k in staff time on this basis."

Reducing the 'burden'

The majority of local authorities to make submissions to the inquiry agreed with the LGA that the "burden" of FoI on them should be reduced.

Chelmsford County Council said: "In our view, there are too many requests for information which are fishing for information with the hope that the requester will capture an interesting bit of information.

"Occasionally these requests may end up with an interesting bit of information which the public should know, however these occasions tend to be rare and it can be argued that the resources put in to responding to these requests cannot be justified with the end result."

The council suggested an introduction of £10 fees could be appropriate and a reduction in the appropriate cost limit of a request, from £450 to £150.

Manchester City Council suggested the cost limit should be reduced from £450 to £250 or the 18-hour limit should factor in "reading, redacting and consideration".

Oxfordshire County Council said: "To leave the appropriate limit at its current level, or substantially the same, would be to continue to risk the diversion away from the provision of essential services such as those (in local authorities) provided for by Children’s and Adult’s Social Care. A reduction to 10 or 12 hours would be a realistic balance and would save the necessity to introduce a standard fee."

Hampshire County Council said: "We would welcome the introduction of a fee structure that was simpler and more efficient to administrate than the current limited arrangements, and that better reflected the actual costs of retrieving, collating and responding to requests.

"We do not believe that providing the option to charge would act as a disincentive to members of the public with genuine concerns or weaken the overall right to know principle."

Devon County Council said consideration should be given to introducing charges for "commercial" FoIs: "Such request may include requests made by media researchers, journalists or media outlets and are bulk sent to public organisations, for the purpose of creating a news story (even if in the public interest), supplementing information, etc."

'Lazy journalism'

In its submission to the commission, Cumbria County Council said: "Councils should… be enabled to refuse media requests that could be considered as 'lazy journalism' that will clearly not inform genuine investigative journal ism or that will not result in 'news' that is not in the public interest."

Its submission said: "The Council fully supports an open data approach where openness, trust and transparency of information should be key components of a system that is designed to support the public to hold the Council to account for its decisions and actions.

"However, the Council's view is that over time the genuine public interest angle has been diminished and that provision should be made to reduce the burden of the FOIA.

"In practice it has become increasingly evident that we are missing the point of the act, which should be about enabling access to information in order to hold the Council to account.

"Consequently, the Council is strongly in favour of a redefinition of the purpose of the Act that will support the Council to take a common sense approach to disclosing information.

"In turn, this would enable the Council to balance the public interest with cost and resources required to provide information."

Kent County Council bemoaned journalists using the act as a "'fishing expedition' for potential stories, in effect utilising valuable council resources to do their research for them". It said: "Disappointingly, the information provided to the Media is then often misrepresented or taken out of context to 'sensationalise' and sell news."

East Northamptonshire Council said: "We fully support the right of the media to use investigative journalism to pursue stories that are in the public interest (e.g. MPs’ expenses).

"However, in our experience, FOI requests from the media are often ‘fishing expeditions, designed to find a negative story to write an article about rather than a genuine investigation into a specific suspected failing by a particular organisation.

"Such requests are often not very carefully worded.

"Each authority will respond as best it can and the journalist (or, often, an inexperienced researcher) interprets the response, makes various assumptions or extrapolations and arrives at a completely spurious conclusion, which then becomes the focus for a negative newspaper article..

"This does not encourage public bodies, in general, to be open and transparent.

"Suggestion: We believe that it should be a requirement for media organisations that have collected information under the FOIA to be required to consult any public body that it proposes to ‘name and shame’ to ensure that its facts and the conclusions that it has drawn from them are accurate."

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