By David Rose
The Government is to consult journalists before deciding whether to raise charges for information released under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Constitutional Affairs Secretary, Lord Falconer, has admitted that higher charges may be sanctioned to cover the cost of the huge amount of time spent by some civil servants in responding to some requests.
But Constitutional Affairs junior minister Baroness Ashton told MPs this week that, before any decisions were taken, she would convene a users’ group within the next few weeks.
Journalists, as well as representatives of government, local government, and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), will be included in the group.
And she said that a further round of public consultation would take place before any final decision was made.
Critics have warned that the flow of information would be halved if the Government raised the threshold beyond which public bodies can charge, waive any fee, or simply refuse to provide any information. This is currently set at £600 for central government and £450 for other bodies, including councils.
Giving evidence to the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, Baroness Ashton said the review of fees was not designed to stop information being released.
"It is not an attempt to prevent people getting what they rightly think should be in the public domain."
But she said the amount of time civil servants spend dealing with FoI requests was an issue that had to be addressed.
"There is a genuine question to be answered. The issue of vexatious requests we have to be [aware of]."
Baroness Ashton also said the Government was providing the Information Commissioner with an extra £550,000 to deal with the backlog of appeals.
This is still well short of the £1.3m extra the commissioner requested.
But the minister said that with £300,000 savings made by the commissioner, that meant £850,000 was available, and she hoped to see the backlog disappear by the end of the year.
Baroness Ashton said she was meeting the Information Commissioner to discuss concerns that there were still "pockets of resistance" to the FoI Act.
But, while she conceded clearer guidance might be needed to ensure consistency across Government departments, she said: "There is no evidence to suggest people are being deliberately slow or holding things up."