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…