Press Gazette research casts doubt over claims FoI places unreasonable burden on councils

  • Councils do not routinely record the cost of Freedom of Information
  • Eight councils found to have released cost figures in recent years
  • Of these, seven have revealed costs of £200,000 or less per year
  • Campaign group believes even these figures are over-estimates
  • Birmingham City Council's provided estimate is £1.1m
  • Estimated cost of FoI to these eight councils totals £2.3m
  • Estimated cost of PR to these eight councils totals £10.3m
Council FoI cost Comms budget
Bristol £150,750 £2.5m
Wolverhampton £199,200 £1.6m
Arun £200,000 £136,690
Staffordshire £138,500 £1.3m
Perth and Kinross £105,648 £191,281
Essex £185,000 £3.2m
York £189,608 £94,000 (excluding staff costs)
Birmingham £1.1m £1.3m

A Press Gazette investigation has raised questions over claims the Freedom of Information Act places an unreasonable "burden" on local councils.

This potential "burden" on public authorities is one of the reasons for a Government review of FoI, which is currently considering the introduction of fees for requestors. One council has previously proposed a charge of £25 per request.

But Press Gazette has found that few councils appear to keep a tally of the cost of answering FoIs, making it hard for them to make a case for the act representing a "burden".

Under the FoI Act, Press Gazette asked the ten British local authorities with the largest communications operations –  as revealed in a previous investigation – how much they spend on answering requests.

Only one, Bristol City Council,  was able to provide a "guesstimate" figure of £150,000 a year. This compares with a £2.5m budget for PR and communications, also released under FoI.

Press Gazette could find only seven other councils nationwide to have recently released estimates of FoI costs. Six of these said costs ranged between £100,000 and £200,000.

The press office of the seventh, Birmingham City Council, has provided an estimated cost of £1.1m for answering for 2,114 requests in 2014, meaning an average cost of £520 per request. This figure is greater than the cost limit for FoIs – £450 – and around seven times more than the average costs of some other councils.

Overall, the eight councils claimed the cost to them of FoI is £2.3m per year. But Press Gazette figures, obtained under FoI, show this is dwarfed by the eight councils' communications budgets – which add up to at least £10.3m.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, dismissed Birmingham's estimate and suggested the costs of between £100,000 and £200,000 are also over-estimations. In addition, he suggested that FoI requests will have forced councils to save more money than they cost to respond to.

Like the other councils asked, under FoI, for the cost of FoI, Bristol City Council said it did not hold the information. But it did provide a "guesstimate" of £150,750 for 2,010 requests.

The same council's 2014/15 communications budget – provided to Press Gazette under FoI – was £2.5m.

The FoI response said:

We do not have information regarding the costs of dealing with FOIs other than the following recent 'guesstimate'.

Unfortunately we have no way of measuring precisely how much officer time is spent dealing with FOI’s as this information is not currently recorded. 

However, if we use what we know anecdotally, I think we can estimate 3 hours per FOI, multiply this by the 2,000 approximate FOI’s we now receive per annum, and then take the ICO guidelines to council’s concerning cost:-

The biggest cost is likely to be staff time. You should rate staff time at £25 per person per hour, regardless of who does the work, including external contractors.

2,000 FOI’s x £25 x 3 hours = £150,000 pa.

Another council to recently disclose an FoI cost estimate was Wolverhampton City Council

The Express and Star reported this month reported that a council scrutiny report found 1,245 FoIs cost the council £199,200 in the last financial year. This would mean an average cost of £160 per request.

This figure, which compares with a £1.6m communications budget from 2013/14, was disputed by its managing director Keith Ireland, who claimed the cost was "at least" £500,000.

Speaking at a scrutiny board meeting, Ireland said: "The vast majority of requests come from media across the country, be that the BBC, local media, or media in general.

"They come from people who are out to create trouble for councils and students who are too lazy to do their own research.

"Others come from big companies who can't be bothered to look up the data and want to know when contracts are on for re-evaluation.

"It is a really costly exercise. The original principal of FOI is not what is happening in reality."

Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, and MP for West Bromwich East, hit back, saying: "I profoundly disagree with the comments made by Mr Ireland. The Freedom of Information Act may sometimes make life uncomfortable for public servants but it has led to information being made available to the public about the decisions made in their name."

In May, the Littlehampton Gazette reported Arun District Council's chief executive as saying FoIs cost his council around £200,000 a year.

Revealing that last year the council faced 535 requests, Nigel Lynn said: "It’s frustrating… I want to make sure that people’s council tax money is spent in the best way possible. I don’t believe, in general, that FoIs are a good example of that."

He added: "The whole issue of FoI was for councils to be more transparent… But I don’t think FoIs are allowing that. It’s enabling people who want to delve into something to the nth degree, to do so, which can tie up our officers."

If 535 FoI requests cost £200,000 in total, the average cost of an FoI to Arun would be £374.

Staffordshire County Council routinely publishes its FoI costs. In the 2014/15 financial year, these totalled £138,500 – compared with a communications budget for the same year of £1.3m.

In April this year, The Courier reported that the cost of FoI to Perth and Kinross Council was £105,648 in 2014. This figure related to 1,385 requests, meaning an average cost of £76 per request.

Its communications budget for 2014/15 was £191,281.

In April last year, Essex County Council leader David Finch bemoaned the cost of FoI, estimated to have been £185,000 in 2013. The council's 2014/15 communications budget was £3.2m.

Finch told the BBC: "This money could be spent on frontline services for children, the elderly or on highway maintenance.

"I would never deny it was a valuable tool but much of the information requested is available on websites and other sources."

In an FoI response from June last year, City of York Council said the average cost of an FoI was £137 and that it had received 1,384 in 2013/14, meaning an estimated cost of £189,608.

According to The Press in York, the council had previously incorrectly stated the average cost was £700 per FoI.

York's communications budget for 2014/15 was provided as £94,000 in an FoI response, though this does not include staff costs.

The highest council estimate on the price of FoI came from Birmingham City Council. This local authority has previously called for £25 charges to be introduced to FoI.

Its press office estimated that, in 2014, 2,114 FoI requests and "staffing costs" added up to £1.1m.

Frankel, of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said Press Gazette should be "very, very cautious about these figures" and that included in them would be costs that would exist without the act.

He added: "A lot of journalists are now being told by press officers they've got to submit an FoI request if they want the information. Disregard the frustration that journalists experience, what that does is it transfers to the FoI budget what would otherwise be part of the press or communications budget…

"The other thing is, you've got to be really cautious about authorities estimates of the costs per request. What some of them are doing are taking figures that other bodies have produced as the cost of an average FoI request and multiplying the number of requests they describe as being FoI requests by this figure, which doesn't come from their own experience."

Frankel added: "What they should be asked is what is the level of expenses claims that were made in 2004 compared to 2006 [after the FoI Act came into law]."

The Independent Commission on Freedom of Information is currently gathering evidence on whether to introduce FoI fees and strengthen the ministerial veto. The deadline for submissions to the commission is this Friday.

In response, Press Gazette has supported the Society of Editors’ Hands Off FoI campaign and launched a petition urging the Government against harming the act. It has so far been signed by more than 41,000 people.


Editor's comment

It is widely expected that public authorities will complain to the Government FoI review that the act places an unreasonable burden on them.

This burden is one of the things the so-called Independent Commission on Freedom of Information has set out to assess. It is feared that it will recommend fees of between £10 and £25 for individual FoI requests.

We would argue that this research shows little evidence that such a burden exists for local authorities.

Most local authorities do not even keep a tally of their FoI spending. I am afraid you can’t dismantle a piece of legislation as important to democracy and society as the Freedom of Information Act on the basis of anecdotes and ‘guesstimates’.

The UK’s largest local authority claims to have an annual FoI spend of more than £1m, which does appear excessive.

But it might be better off first addressing the inefficiencies which mean this council apparently spends more than three times as much answering individual FoI questions as anyone else.

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