New threat to charge for FoI requests

Journalists and members of the public should be charged for obtaining information under the Freedom of Information Act and are a ‘drain’on public resources, according to a Ministry of Justice report.

Public bodies that come under the remit of the act have questioned whether it is fair to devote resources for those ‘looking for the next news story”.

The findings came in a memorandum submitted by the MoJ to the Justice Select Committee ahead of a post-legislative inquiry into the act this month, when the committee is expected to consider plans to reform the law.

The MoJ – responsible for compiling FoI statistics from more than 40 central government departments and bodies – commissioned Ipsos MORI to carry out a study that included interviews with central government departments and public authorities.

It found that request volumes were deemed to be increasing – with some estimating year-on-year rises of 20-25 per – and a “general acknowledgement that requests are becoming more complex and require a greater degree of involvement by staff”.

The study’s main findings were:

  • ‘The desire to see the appropriate limit reduced [this is the cost over which requests are deemed too expensive to answer].
  • ‘For redaction, consultation and reading time to be included in the cost/time incurred in processing requests.
  • ‘The introduction of a small fee in placing a request – this was namely directed at serial requesters as many were aware that the introduction of a fee will automatically prevent some individuals from submitting a request, ie from members of the public as opposed to journalists.
  • ‘A review of resources in responding to increasing numbers of requests, particularly in light of budget cuts.”

The study also found there was ‘little consensus’on whether the act had improved the recording of information by public authorities, though there was a ‘common agreement’it had ‘led to information being published more proactively”.

Most departments interviewed said they struggled to meet the act’s 20-day deadline but nonetheless felt it was “appropriate”.

There was also agreement that the cost of locating, retrieving and extracting information did not reflect the total amount of time spent compiling a response, with redaction times described as being ‘extremely onerous”.

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