Making money from FOI requests

Man with euros Dutch FOI delays can incur a fine, paid to the person requesting the data

Recently I discussed freedom of information in Ireland and how the level of FOI applications there has been much lower since those requesting information had to pay an up-front fee for doing so.

While in this case there is something in common with the UK - in that some British public authorities would like the same policy to be adopted - often the most striking aspect of international comparison is the very wide discrepancies between the laws and attitudes that are accepted in different countries.

In the Netherlands, for example, people making FOI applications can sometimes end up being financially better off rather than worse off.

If a public authority fails to reply to an FOI request by the legal time limit, then it may be penalised by having to pay a fine for every day it is late, with the money involved going to the requester, at a rate of 30 euros a day up to a maximum of 1260 euros. I know one Dutch journalist who has received such a payment more than once.

The idea is that it should deter public authorities from excessive delays in dealing with FOI applications. If such a law existed in the UK then there are some public authorities who would have found it very expensive - and some frequent FOI requesters who would have found it a highly lucrative activity.

I'm not aware of anyone who is suggesting the introduction of such a scheme in the UK, even if the notion might be tempting to those of us who have had to put up with long delays. However, as with the Irish and British FOI laws, Dutch FOI legislation is also currently under review, and this provision may not stay in place.

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If such [fines] existed in the UK, some frequent FOI requesters would have found it a highly lucrative activity”

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While in some respects the UK's freedom of information system is far-reaching and transparent compared to many countries - for example, in the wide range of public bodies covered - there are other aspects where it is comparatively limited.

In Norway the process of applying for copies of documents under FOI is greatly facilitated by a government internet portal which lists state records. You don't have to be Norwegian to use it, and there is even a version in English.

You can easily browse and search for documents, select the ones you want for your order basket, and submit an application for them. It helps requesters who might otherwise not know what records are actually held by the public authority.

Earlier this year the Chancellor, George Osborne, said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph that he was happy to consider making the personal tax returns of senior ministers publicly available.

Ballot box in Edinburgh in recent elections Would UK voters want to know the incomes and tax arrangements of those seeking office?

There's a big gap between considering something and implementing it. But there are countries in which summary tax data of all citizens, whether politicians or not, is publicly available.

And in Sweden there was a website at the large general election which included such data in its profiles of candidates, making it easy for electors to see the income of those they might vote for.

Could such information be found useful by the electorate in the UK?

A YouGov poll in the wake of Mr Osborne's remarks suggested that in fact there are many voters whose preference between candidates would be affected by knowing how rich they are - wealth and easy popularity do not always go together.

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

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  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    The delays should be fined. However all FOI requests should after a period of weeks, allowing journalists and others who have obtained market sensitive data, be released into the public domain.

    A government FOI portal should be established logging and showing all FOIs this would overcome problems of people asking different departments for the same thing. We need openess and transparency.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    As someone who has to answer FoI requests, I agree completely that requesters are entitled to the information and that it should be provided in a timely fashion. But we get so many requests! By far the majority are obviously trawling for marketing information though, which distracts from handling more important issues. And quite a lot are for information already in the public domain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I love the idea: public authority fails to reply to an FOI request by the legal time limit, it is penalised by having to pay a fine for every day it is late, money going to the requester (30 euros/, maximum of 1260 euros). It should also refund FOI fee & process for free.
    I also like facilitation by govt Internet portal which lists state records; this seems transparent & efficient for user.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    A fine to an appropriate charity seems like a good way to encourage prompt responses, without encouraging pointless FOI requests.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.


    " would be helpful to have to pay a fee with a FOI request..."


    There's always a right to require reasonable costs to be met.

    Land Registry typically charges £12 per item on a formal basis.

    This discourages mischief, or commercial excessive use of the access. Councils etc. usually waive the charge for one-offs from CT payers etc. as just not worth the bother.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.


    "...Listening to...Westminster...shows that they wish this...could be reversed..."


    Boy oh boy don't they just...repealing the Human Rights Act would be paving the way for that, I'd say.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I am sure the Norway and Sweden systems are great.

    But will we also have the 60% tax rate to pay for it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Listening to the Westminister machine over the last few months shows that they wish this little gem from Tony B (though giving this idiot praise grates me), could be reversed if possible.
    Lets give the snake oil team another little gem, all lobbying must be minuted and made freely available upon request.
    The more truth and deception uncovered the better, this countrys modus operandi stinks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The problem I've had with public officials is their failure to reply at all, to all manner of queries.

    This is particularly true of council planning offices, legal departments etc., I find, when you ask why procedure has not apparently been followed in a case.

    Perhaps I should structure all my queries as Requests For Information under FOI from now on...

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    The answer to the headline is No.

    There are instances of clearly vexatious FOI requests, to climate scientists (either side of the climate debate), councils etc being bombarded with several hundred requests, from different individuals, on subtly different topics all arriving within a short space of time.

    Dealing with them takes time, so why make it more apealing for pranksters to use FOI?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    #3 We don't live in a democracy. We live in a constitutional monarchy. head of state is unelected, upper house is unelected & the way the lower house works means you can have an overwhelming majority with just 35% of the vote.

    There are many laws the government can use to do whatever it wishes. The 'defence on the realm' act is one I'm familiar with. 'National Security' allows much.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    FOI should also be extended to private companies who conduct work for public bodies, and untilities and banks. FOI requests must remain free. No fines for disclosure failure; CRIMINAL prosecution of responsible senior manager. The govt. needs to be made to understand its OUR information, not theirs. Give the ICO some REAL teeth...

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    On the basis that we are supposed to live in a democracy then failure to supply answers to an FOI request should be subject to a heavy fine following a realistic time frame to provide the information.

    Why should our elected representatives have any rights to withhold information from the electorate.

    If they have when was it given?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    if the information was important enough i can see this GOV happily paying out tax payer cash to withhold info, they would probably run a scam with their mates to maximise claiming the money by telling them what to ask for that wont be supplied.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I feel that it would be helpful to have to pay a fee with a FOI request, but that this should then be coupled with penalty for failure to provide that information with in, say, 28 days. This would help authorities fund the search whilst providing an incentive not to delay.


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