FOI relationship feeling the seven-year itch

 
Woman dressed as a zombie Councils have been asked about their readiness for attack by zombies

Freedom of information has been in force in the UK for seven years now, and some people are itching to get the law changed.

Next year could mark an important phase in the history of the right for the public to have access to state information.

This is because MPs on the House of Commons Justice Committee are holding an enquiry into how the FOI Act has been working in practice. The committee has recently called for evidence from all those with a view on the strengths and weaknesses of the law in operation.

The Justice Committee has already received a memorandum from the Ministry of Justice, which sets out some of the terrain that may be contested. I've now read this report in more detail than when writing an initial reaction on the afternoon it came out, and it's an important pointer towards the concerns of public authorities.

Frustrated

The chief one of these is clearly cost. Many authorities feel that the current cost threshold for rejecting requests as too expensive is too high, and/or that they should be allowed to take a wider range of activities into account in determining their costs (for example, redacting documents, which is currently excluded from the cost calculation).

Of course frustrated requesters sometimes complain that the cost threshold is too low. We can expect the trade-off between costs and benefits of FOI to be one of the main themes in the forthcoming scrutiny of the Act.

The MoJ will be publishing new research into the cost of FOI compliance next year. It has commissioned a study of 48 authorities to measure the amount of staff time it consumes.

This is clearly much easier to quantify than the benefits, whether in the form of public spending saved or the even more intangible factors of transparency and public understanding.

Zombie attack

Some authorities also complain that the procedure for declaring a request "vexatious" is too difficult, so that it is often less time-consuming to answer what they regard as pointless or obsessive questions (possibly for example about their readiness for attack by zombies) than it would be to reject them on this basis.

But it is striking that few more fundamental concerns are reported by the ministry. The basic structure of how FOI works - a general right to know, subject to exemptions and in many cases a public interest test - therefore seems to be widely accepted by public authorities.

The report says most FOI practitioners had few issues about the operation of most exemptions, suggesting "they are felt to be adequate in scope", according to the MoJ. My initial blog about the report discussed the mixed views on policy formulation and the "chilling effect".

It is also interesting to note how the practical operations of FOI would have been regarded very differently if the same assessment had been conducted three to five years after the Act was introduced, which is the period within which new Acts are supposed to face post-legislative scrutiny.

Overwhelming

Any account at that time would surely have focused on delay, delay, delay as the key problem with the system, due to the immense backlog of cases then overwhelming the Information Commissioner's Office.

Yet that problem has been much reduced since the currrent commissioner Chris Graham took up his post, with the beneficial consequence of encouraging public authorities too to make their FOI processing faster and more efficient.

The MoJ report is based on the views of public authorities and acknowledges that it is harder to survey the experiences of requesters of information. But it does note that "concern still exists" about the time authorities can take to assess the public interest on whether material should be disclosed or to consider an internal review of an initial decision.

As we look forward to next year, it's also worth stating that significant results could flow not just from the policy work of MPs and government, but also from some important individual cases that are awaiting legal decision.

These include a forthcoming Supreme Court ruling that should finally determine the extent to which the BBC's activities are covered by FOI requests, a tribunal case on whether private water companies can be forced to disclose material in line with the Environmental Information Regulations, and another tribunal case on whether the Information Commissioner was right to rule that the government should release its register of risks on its NHS reform plans which are currently going through Parliament.

 
Martin Rosenbaum Article written by Martin Rosenbaum Martin Rosenbaum Freedom of information specialist

Simon Hughes spells out his pre-election FOI plans

Justice minister Simon Hughes spells out his plans for changes to freedom of information before the general election.

Read full article

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

Comments

This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
 
  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 10.

    Introduce an administration fee to cover costs and watch the vexatious requests disappear.

    No one said that Freedom of Information has to be free.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 9.

    I want to know how many MP's are really aliens.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 8.

    Our rights, liberties & entitlements are being eroded by this government in every sphere of public life which must be resisted. It's obvious that our representatives are not as trustworthy or benevolent as they would have us believe so we shouldn't be complacent. FOI is vital to sustaining what little balance we have in our dodgy democracy. If Tony Blair has a problem it can only be a good thing.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 7.

    Anybody that believes the ability to keep infomation from the public will never be abused are joking themselves. You can't trust people especially not when you open up a newspaper and find more illegal activities from politicians than criminals. I'd rather die from an attack as a free person than live to be 110 in what is basically decending into a dictatorship.

    Reference: Every government ever.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 6.

    Responses to the so called "vexatious" requests (surely the correct word would be flippant?! "vexatious" requests would be repeated requests designed to waste time and money) are cheap and simple... "Dear Sir, That you for your recent FOI request. We have no plans for responding to a Zombie Attack. Yours Sincerely..." Job done.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 5.

    Barclays borrowed £149B from US Fed emergency funds during crisis. Did you know that? Data just released by the central bank UNDER A FREEDOM OF INFORMATION REQUEST. UK bank emerges as LARGEST user of "term auction facility" when money markets seize. RBS tapped £38.8b in 2008 from Fed via the Bank of England. Fed detailed 21,000 transactions between 2007 - 2010.
    Make you nervous?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 4.

    Costs I can understand, but evidently the public does not feel satisfied that what it needs to know is in the public domain. Also, I would like to point out that Wikileaks was so very popular because it gave out information that was often covert, salacious, and maybe just petty. But FoI must weight costs agianst the cost of legal procedures against someone like Julian Assange.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 3.

    If the 'brodie-crats' have got nothing to hide - What are they all afraid of?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 2.

    We need more access to the information, not less.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 1.

    While many FOI requests are genuinely challenging, the daft ones mentioned in recent reports (drawing pin use, preparations for rescuing Santa if he crashes), really can be dealt with quickly. One criteria for defining a vexatious request is that it lacks a serious purpose or value - while this could be misused, requests about stationery and zombie apocalypse fall squarely within this category

 

Features

  • Peaky Blinders publicity shotBrum do

    Why is the Birmingham accent so difficult to mimic?


  • Oliver CromwellA brief history

    The 900-year-story behind the creation of a UK parliament


  • Image of Ankor Wat using lidarJungle Atlantis

    How lasers have revealed an ancient city beneath the forest


  • TigerBard taste? Watch

    Are trailer videos on social media spoiling theatre?


  • Tesco signBest before?

    Has Tesco passed its sell-by date, asks Richard Anderson


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.