Public authorities able to refuse costly FoI requests

Lord Falconer: no charge for ‘vast majority’ of FoI requests

Government bodies have the right to refuse Freedom of Information requests if they consider them to be too expensive.

The possible loophole was revealed this week in charging regulations released by the Department of Constitutional Affairs.

The DCA said public bodies, including councils, could refuse to
answer requests if they cost more than £450 to answer (equivalent to
two and a half days’ searching time). For central government
departments the limit is £600, or three and a half days’ searching time.

A DCA spokesman said: “The right to access information needs to be
balanced by the need of public authorities to carry out their core
duties. For this reason, the Act allows for public authorities to
decline to comply with certain requests for information on the grounds
of cost where these would be particularly expensive, even if the
applicant is willing to pay.”

Local authorities can also ask applicants to pay the cost of
information requests that are above the £600/£450 thresholds or else
give them the chance to rephrase the request in a way that is less
expensive to answer.

The DCA has reiterated the pledge, first made by Attorney-General
Lord Falconer in November, that there would be no charge for the “vast
majority” of FoI requests.

Information Rights minister Baroness Ashton said: “This Government
has maintained there should be no financial barrier to people who want
information about decisions taken about their children’s schools, their
hospitals, their police forces and the other areas that affect their
lives.”

In assessing the cost of releasing information, public authorities
can take into account the cost of retrieving it – but not the cost of
deciding whether or not it is exempt.

For requests that cost less than the £600 and £450 limits,
authorities can still charge for postage, printing and photocopying.
But according to the DCA: “where the cost of communicating the
information to the applicant is low, authorities should waive the
charge for printing and photocopying”.

If the applicant does not agree with a fee or with an
authority’s decision to refuse a request on grounds of cost, they can
appeal to the office of the Information Commissioner.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 comes into force on 1 January 2005 and covers more than 100,000 public bodies.

CRIMINAL RECORDS

Dead former prison inmates could be the subject of requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

It raises the prospect of a media rush to see prison service files
on notorious former prisoners such as Myra Hindley, Fred West and
Harold Shipman.

One journalist who has close dealings with the Prison Service said:
“One of the clauses of the Freedom of Information Act is they have to
release the material when you are dead. There is a feeling that a lot
of people will be after Myra Hindley’s files.”

A Prison Service spokesman said: “Potentially prisoners’ records
would be disclosable, but not all of them because they might refer to
other people who are still alive, such as prison staff, family members
and victims.”

By Dominic Ponsford

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