By David Rose
Ministers are facing a Parliamentary probe into the operation of the Freedom of Information Act amid fears they plan to raise fees because of the increasing use journalists are making of it.
The inquiry by the cross-party Constitutional Affairs Select Committee comes when Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, is reviewing the fees regime.
Journalists on local, regional as well as the national media are using the FoI Act to force bodies such as local councils and Whitehall departments to divulge information.
But the first year’s operation of the law has thrown up problems, including a backlog of appeals to Information Commissioner Richard Thomas whose job is to ensure 1,000 public bodies comply with requests.
"This is important ground-breaking legislation," Alan Beith, chairman of the committee, said. "The first year of the FoI Act’s operation has raised a number of issues including the backlog of appeals at the Office of the Information Commissioner, the time it has taken some departments to answer requests and the Lord Chancellor’s unexpected suggestion of possible fees for requesters.
"The committee will consider how well the legislation and the preparations put in place in advance of implementation have operated in practice."
A spokeswoman for Lord Falconer’s Department for Constitutional Affairs denied ministers were intent on raising fees to a level to deter reporters from making requests.
"Contrary to press reports, there are no secret plans to introduce deterrent fees," she said. "During the passage of the fees regulations through Parliament, DCA ministers committed to reviewing the fees regime 12 to 18 months after implementation.
"After the first full year of implementation of Freedom of Information, the Government is reviewing its impact to ensure that it is operating well. No decisions have been taken about changes to the regime."
The Act allows Whitehall departments to levy fees of up to £600, while councils can charge £450. Just six departments charge fees: the Northern Ireland Office, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Health and Safety Executive, the National Archives, Ordinance Survey, and the Treasury Solicitor’s Department.
National Archives accounted for more than 95 per cent of requests. "This suggests that central government departments are making minimal use of the fees regime, with the exception of large-scale archival work," the spokeswoman said.
Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, complained there were still too many organisations that tried to conceal information.
"There seems to be an impression that you still get a kneejerk reaction from some bodies, and where there are exemptions, they will make use of them to refuse to divulge information."
Lord Falconer is to consider bringing private bodies performing public functions, such as privately-run prisons and school academies, within the scope of the Act. Critics are also campaigning to extend the Act to the Press Complaints Commission to ascertain how it arrives at its rulings.