Attempts to hinder access of UK Government documents via the FOA
Public ‘should be charged to see government papers’
By Tim Ross, Political Correspondent
7:00AM GMT 14 Feb 2012
Officials are said to be frustrated at spending hours researching the answers to requests for disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act.
Civil servants believe that the laws, which were introduced to make government more open, could have had the opposite effect by making officials less willing to keep written records which could become public.
A committee of MPs is due to hold an inquiry into the operation of the Act this month. The group is likely to consider whether the laws should be reformed.
The Freedom of Information Act was introduced seven years ago as part of an attempt to create what Tony Blair called “a new relationship between government and people”.
The process of releasing previously private Civil Service information was intended to have signalled that the public are “legitimate stakeholders in the running of the country”.
However, civil servants and ministers have complained that the new rules are more often used by journalists searching for a news story than by members of the public looking for official information.
Research commissioned by the Ministry of Justice and submitted to the Commons’ justice select committee, found that the number of requests made for information to be released under the Act had risen by up to 25 per cent each year. Central government departments receive a total of about 2,000 to 2,500 FOI requests each month.
The ministry commissioned Ipsos MORI to conduct a survey of officials to assess how publicly-funded organisations felt about the operation of the laws. The survey found that requests for information from journalists and commercial companies were seen as “a drain” on resources, with some respondents questioning whether it is fair to devote public resources to providing information for private companies and those “looking for the next news story”.
Some officials felt the Act may have made their colleagues more reluctant to keep full notes of meetings, amid concerns that they may be required to release the details in future.
Suggestions for reforming the rules included “the introduction of a small fee for placing a request, or for requesting an appeal (which would be repayable if successful)”.
This plan was aimed at reducing applications for information from “serial requesters” who cause “frustration” among civil servants.
Maurice Frankel, a freedom of information campaigner, said introducing a charge for releases would have “a devastating effect” on transparency of government.
“The Irish government introduced an application fee under their Act in 2003,” he said.
“The following year, the volume of requests fell by 75 per cent. It would be extremely unhealthy to follow suit.”
In its conclusion to the written evidence to the select committee, the ministry said that the Act has had “significant success in opening up government”.
However, it added: “These successes do not come without cost. Concern within public authorities at the time taken to process and respond to FOI requests, to conduct public interest tests and consider exemption, to conduct internal reviews and to deal with complaints and appeals is significant.”
Writing in his memoirs, Tony Blair described the Act as “dangerous” and railed against his own “stupidity” at introducing the laws.