Making money from FOI requests

Man with euros Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption 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.

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.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption 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.