MPs slam Government FOI proposals

The Government's plans to limit requests under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act should be blocked, according to a parliamentary committee. It also said that watchdog the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) should be better funded.

The constitutional affairs select committee said that government plans to limit FOI requests did not adequately balance the costs and the public's rights to know about public bodies. It said that the proposed limitations would not be transparent or accountable to the public.

Last year the Government proposed restricting public and media access to public information by cutting requests which were complex or took more time to fulfil.

A cost ceiling currently operates so that if the cost of finding and extracting information, billed at £25 per hour, exceeds £600 then the request can be denied. The ceiling is £450 for local government bodies.

The new proposal allows authorities to bill for reading documents and staff consultation, a move which will put many more requests above the ceiling than is currently the case. The proposal most controversially would allow for 'aggregation' of requests, meaning that the cost ceiling would not apply to an individual but to their organisation.

That would mean, for example, that large organisations such as a newspaper would only be permitted £600 worth of requests every three months, a move that opponents fear would stifle open government and hamper newsgathering.

"No clear evidence to support the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA)’s decision that a change to the charging regime was necessary has been published," said the committee's report. "The data in the Frontier Economics review [on which the DCA's recommendations were based] is not a satisfactory substitute since it merely confirms that the various change options would reduce requests rather than presenting a cogent argument to explain why such changes were considered necessary.

"We have no evidence to indicate that the Government has adequately reviewed whether the existing charging regime balanced public access rights with the needs of public authorities to deliver services effectively, before examining ways of reducing compliance costs. Furthermore we have not heard sufficient evidence from the Department to support the need for a radical change in the arrangements for charging for Freedom of Information requests," said the committee's report.

The Government published its plans last December, but the outcry which followed forced it to begin a supplementary consultation process which threw doubt on the plans. The committee's report will further weaken the Government case for change.

The committee said that the cost benefit analysis behind the Government's proposals was based on "poor quality" information and focused entirely on cost reduction and not on the societal benefit of transparent government.

The committee also looked at the funding and operation of the ICO, finding that the office was insufficiently funded and repeating an earlier call for the office to report directly to Parliament. "We question whether it is appropriate for the Ministry of Justice to set the funding levels for the independent regulator and thereby directly influence its capacity to investigate complaints," said the report. "We are not convinced that the funding of the ICO is sufficient to enable it to deliver an effective complaints resolution service."