Government adopts FOI limits

The Government has backed proposals to limit Freedom of Information Act (FOI) requests to one every three months for all organisations, including newspapers, MPs and campaign groups.

The Government has backed the controversial suggestions contained in an independent review of FOI practice produced by consultancy Frontier Economics. The effect will be to drastically reduce the numbers of requests allowable by groups, and could increase the number of requests that are refused, campaigners have warned.

The Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) has published a draft of revised regulations covering FOI requests and will consult on that draft until March. The draft follows closely the recommendations of the Frontier Economics report.

At the moment any request which costs less than a fixed amount to process must be fulfilled. That amount is £600 for central government and £450 for local authorities, calculated at a rate of £25 an hour for finding and extracting the information.

The new proposal, though, is to charge for other time consuming activity such as reading of documents and staff consultation. This will send many more requests above the £600 barrier, at which point they can be refused.

While Government can choose to process requests that will cost over £600 and charge the requester any additional costs it is under no obligation to do so and can simply refuse the request altogether.

Critics of the revisions claim that the changes are designed to prevent the release of vital and complex information, which by definition is more likely to break the £600 barrier because it needs more consultation.

"I'm particularly concerned that responsible media use of the FOI Act is the target for this," Liberal Democrat MP Alan Beith told OUT-LAW when the proposals were first published. Beith chaired a Commons Committee which reported on the progress of the FOI Act's use.

"They occasionally cite abuses of this, some of which are by individuals rather than media organisations, some of which can be dealt with by existing powers and none of which require this sort of draconian measure," said Beith.

A second major change in the DCA's proposals is that each organisation would be limited to a certain number of requests in any three month period. The result could be that organisations such as major newspapers or even the BBC would be rationed to as little as one request every three months to each public body.

"These changes strike right at the heart of the Act, which is that the basis for decisions should be the public interest, not authorities’ interests," said Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. "Under the proposals, the more substantial the public interest issue raised by someone’s request, the more likely it will be to be refused. The government is taking a scythe to its own Act.”

The Government is keen to cut the cost of keeping in line with the Act, which it puts at £35.5 million. Frankel, though, says that the amount to be saved is not reason enough to change the regulations so drastically. " The supposed savings from these changes, of £11.8 million, is out of all proportion to the damage that would be done to the legislation," he said.

"We feel that the existing provisions need to be extended to make sure public authorities can strike the right balance between access to information for all and the delivery of other public services," said Information Rights minister Baroness Catherine Ashton.

"I believe that the changes reflected in these draft regulations will allow public authorities to take into account more accurately the work involved in dealing with an FOI request in a way that is reasonable and sensible," she said.