Lord Falconer has provoked fresh alarm that he plans to restrict the flow of information to journalists just as the Freedom of Information Act is “beginning to bite”.
The Department of Constitutional Affairs has confirmed it is pressing ahead with a review of the fees regime, despite opposition from a watchdog committee of MPs.
The review comes as ministers have expressed concern that officials are “spending huge amounts of time” searching for files.
Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, has warned that two changes may be contemplated, which could restrict the flow of information.
Frankel told Press Gazette that he feared one option was to lower the cost limit, which would lead to more requests for information being rejected.
Section 12 of the FoI Act allows public bodies to refuse to answer requests for information if the cost of complying would exceed the “appropriate limit” prescribed in the fees regulations.
This is currently set at £600 for central government and £450 for other bodies, including councils.
Frankel said the other option was to allow public bodies, when assessing the cost of acceding to requests, to take account of the time taken to read files to decide whether the information should be withheld, and any time taken to provide advice and assistance.
The Lord Chancellor, in evidence to the cross-party Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, said one option was to include “within the chargeable limits the time taken to read files to assess which exemptions might apply”.
Baroness Ashton, Constitutional Affairs minister, told the MPs that staff were “spending huge amounts of time simply finding files before we even get to the point of reading them”.
But the MPs have told Lord Falconer that they do not think this justifies a review of the fees regulations and would simply demonstrate “a serious short-
coming in some public authorities’ records management systems”.
In their report, the MPs urged Lord Falconer to publish the results of the internal fees review and to conduct a public consultation before deciding any change, but they concluded: “We see no need to change the fees regulations.” A spokesman for the Department of Constitutional Affairs confirmed the review was continuing.
“Ministers are committed to reviewing the fees regime 12 to 18 months after implementation,” he said.
“It is only right that the fees regime should be kept under review so that the Government can ensure that there is a proper balance between FoI and the responsible use of public funds. No decisions have been taken.” Frankel said: “The Government should be taking credit for the fact the FoI is beginning to bite. To play around with the cost limit in a way that suggests it is trying to discourage people from using the FoI Act would be a terrible own goal.”