Sir Paul Stephenson has proposed charging for FOI requests as part of 25% cuts at the Met. Charging for FOI is always controversial. Currently authorities can charge for ‘disbursements’ such as photocopying (though most tend to waive these charges), and for the cost of fulfilling requests costing more than £450 in most authorities or £600 in central government bodies. In practice, this means that charges are very rarely levied for FOI requests.
When charges were introduced in Ireland in 2005, this led to a huge drop in FOI requests. FOI has clearly become a highly charged political issue in the UK and the Government would have to be very careful about how it introduced such a change. It would fall to the Ministry of Justice, under Ken Clarke, to do this.
I have mixed feelings about charging for requests. The last time the Labour Government made such a proposal, I was firmly against it. My reasoning was that FOI had not at that time bedded in properly – it had only been in place for two years; and it felt like part of a general assault on the Act (David McLean’s FOI Amendment Bill was also going through Parliament at the time).
I’m not so sure this time. As indicated in earlier posts, I’m uneasy about an ever expanding FOI caseload at a time when resources are being cut. I’ve seen large volumes of requests being pushed at hospitals, police forces and universities, all of which have important work to do and are being told to prioritise. I do wonder if a nominal (and discretionary) £10 charge might be a good way to manage the impact of FOI, particularly on those bodies lower down the pecking order. It might put off some of the more trivial requests that critics of FOI are able to roll out to attack it – the notorious toilet roll requests, for instance.
Then again, I do see that this would be a move away from openness, or at least could be interpreted that way. It will be interesting to see whether the Government decides to pursue such a move as part of its proposed reforms of FOI. I’d be interested to hear your views on charging – is it necessary, do you think and why? What form should any new fees regulations take?
Update on FOI fees post, Saturday 16th October
Read an argument against a £10 fee the other day which I found quite persuasive. Maurice Frankel, of the Campaign for FOI, argued that this would stop people being able to make the same request to several authorities, so building up a picture of a particular issue. I can see this point. It’s never simple with FOI is it? Could there be a way to make the same request to several authorities but only charge once – say, through WhatDoTheyKnow or some other portal? Or is it better just not to charge, as now? Still not sure on this and happy to hear suggestions from others…
I’ve always felt that the lack of identification as a FoI request and the lack of any fee make FoI difficult to administer. A £10 fee would certainly get rid of trivial requests from members of the public, eg the sort of requests that are generated automatically from web sites. It wouldn’t stop the special interest groups and journalists, however. Would it stop legitimate requests from the public? Probably not in all cases, I would guess, although it would likely stop some legitimate requests that would otherwise have been made.
Can certainly see the argument for a fee as you suggest Chris. I’d be prepared to accept £10 – less happy if it was more like the Irish model (which from memory has fees much higher than this). Similarly, agree that citing FOI would help in administering requests – it would certainly have prevented some of the time-wasting battles I’ve had with colleagues over whether or not correspondence should be handled as an FOI request.
Bill Gates once said that he could stop spam in an instant. Just charge 1p for 1,000 emails (or 10,000, or possibly even 100,000).
The point was that for most of us, we could buy all the emails we would ever need for the price of a bar of chocolate.
But the spammers would go out of business.
I would cheerfully put a totally nominal charge on this (£1). That would be unlikely to cover the administration costs. But that would be missing the point. The purpose of the charge is to deter spurious requests, not to generate revenue.
But in the end, I like the £10 limit. The counterpoint you mention is standard: you can always find a case that would be harmed by a change (see Child Benefit for an example).
But FoI, while good for transparency, is a huge and often unnecessary drain on public organisations.
Start the £10 fee now, I say.
Thanks for the comment, Nicholas. Interesting comparison with the spam email issue.
There’s definitely a case for a charge. But I think the counter argument to it being a huge drain on public organisations would be that it also, arguably, saves a lot of money – and in ways that are largely unseen.
Public officials and politicians now know that their decisions are subject to FOI. Any expenditure of public funds is likely to become public so decisions are scrutinised more carefully in the first instance.
MPs, to take a well known example, are now much less likely to claim expenses beyond the bare minimum after the furore last year. One reason for publishing public sector salaries I suspect is an attempt to drive down demand for higher salaries.
If you start charging for FOI, yes, you may well cut out trivial requests, but you might also limit that safeguard on spending. I’m not saying we shouldn’t charge, but I think in considering it we need to look at not just the immediate cost demands, but also the wider benefit to government and society.
It’s safe to say that I’ve yet to make my mind up on this!
I understand the intentions of filtering out seemingly frivilous request by charging £10.
Although what is frivilous? I once got asked for the height of tower cranes onsite which may seemingly be nonsense to some people but very useful to the applicant.
However I suppose you could always hold the charge in reserve and waiver payment…..
For DPA subject access requests I remember we once calculated how much it would actually cost to process and administer payment and for cheques it cost more than the £10 itself you receive! Obviously card payments and efficiencies since probably mean that it is more cost effective now.