Leicestershire Police officials have called for a “nominal fee” for journalists and other organisations submitting Freedom of Information requests, saying submissions from members of the public should be given priority.
The force said it has had 10,000 FOI requests since the law came into force in 2005, but that this is now increasing by 20 per cent each year.
This has resulted in the need for eight posts – four analysts and four administrative – solely to deal with FOI requests.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 allows authorities to charge the requester, with approval, if it is deemed the request would exceed the cost limit of £600 for central Government, Parliament and the armed forces and £450 for other public authorities.
The Ethics, Integrity and Complaints Committee for the Police and Crime Commissioner for Leicestershire, which met on 15 March, said that 75 per cent of all FOI requests received by Leicestershire Police come from journalists and academics.
“Only a small proportion are from the public themselves,” a report of the committee said.
“The police have to provide the information by law, but in a time of austerity should the police be allowed to charge for this information?
“Whilst there is provision in legislation for public authorities to charge for providing information if the collation of that information exceeds 48 hours of work, the majority of requests fall under that time limit.
“The current demand would require the recruitment of an additional 13 administrative posts to deal with the number of requests within the statutory time limits.”
The committee felt that FOI requests from members of the public should take priority, with a “nominal fee” for journalists and other organisations.
It acknowledged that this is currently unlawful, but said members had “voiced their concerns over the use of public money being spent on such administrative procedures”.
“Whilst recognising that current legislation was bought in with good intent members felt that consideration should now be given to reviewing and amending the legislation to differentiate between requests from members of the public and journalists and to assist public authorities in meeting the demand.”
Leicestershire Live quoted an anonymous senior source at the police force saying they get “endless” FOI requests from “certain national newspapers asking for things like a list of any crimes we have had reported involving the words ‘donkey’ and ‘sex’”.
“They are nothing more than fishing trips by journalists hoping they might provide an amusing story but they do take up a lot of our resources.
“For a journalist it’s a request that takes minutes. For us to handle it takes a lot of time – and at the end of it they might not even write a story. FOI can be very useful to hold public bodies to account but that’s not what many of the requests we get are about.”