deny that they plan to increase charges for complying with FOIA requests in
an attempt to curb freedom of information.
The department for constitutional affairs (DCA) has made the denial in evidence submitted to a parliamentary committee.
However, it pointed out that ministers had publicly committed to reviewing the fees by June. And it fell short of denying any plan to increase charges in order to meet any aim other than deterring requests.
MPs are to question a DCA minister, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, over the future for ‘freedom of information’ in the UK. She is due to give evidence on April 18 to the constitutional affairs committee as it reviews the first year of full implementation of the freedom of information act (FOIA) in the UK.
In evidence published by parliament, but subject to corrections, the DCA said: “Contrary to media reports, the government has no ‘secret plan’ to introduce deterrent fees. The purpose of any potential review will be to ensure that FOIA is working well and that the fees regime continues to balance public-access rights with the needs of public authorities to deliver services effectively.”
However, it said that it was planning to tighten the restriction on how much time public bodies must spend on a FOIA request. Under current rules, a central government department can refuse a request if the cost to the authority for complying exceeds £600, including staff hours spent locating and retrieving the relevant information, but not the time they spend reviewing it.
“The government is therefore currently conducting an exercise to assess the time taken by officials to process requests, including activities that do not currently fall within the £600 appropriate limit, such as time spent reading the relevant information.”
Earlier this month, MPs on the parliamentary sel-ect committee questioned the information commissioner, Richard Thomas, over how FOIA has been regulated in the UK.
They have also had evidence from Lord Lester on his experience of using FOIA to find out the date on which the government first sought and obtained legal advice on invading Iraq.
His journey to uncover this basic fact, concerning a subject of huge public interest, albeit of great sensitivity to the government, was ultimately successful but torturous.
The committee has also had evidence from the BBC, both as a requestor and as a public body that is itself subject to FOIA. The BBC produced a list of revelatory stories that its journalists have obtained using FOIA in the UK.
The committee’s specific areas of inquiry are: the information commissioner’s role; requestors’ and public bodies’ experiences; and the role of the DCA, including its ‘clearing house’ for requests to central government departments.
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