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 Article written by Martin Rosenbaum Martin Rosenbaum Freedom of information specialist

How the Civil Service objected to Kinnock's FOI plans

New documents reveal Whitehall officials objected to aspects of the freedom of information law that Neil Kinnock planned to introduce if Labour won the 1992 election.

Read full article

Comments

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 35.

    Very interesting. While fines for authorities delaying sounds nice, the real concern is that the current information access rights are protected. Reading through the comments a few people have suggested charges for FOI. This sounds great at stopping idiots, but it will also deter genuine and important requests and that is the main reason why fees for FOI should be opposed.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 34.

    Money talks

    Especially if the government has to pay it out

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 33.

    The FOI act does have some very good uses, when applied correctly. There are some prolific FOI requesters out there constantly trying to obtain petty information from public bodies that in reality is of no interest to most people. This wastes huge amounts of staff time & costs valuable money. Some just appear to ask for information just to create work,

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 32.

    I have no idea how much information we are talking about nor how complicated the process is in making such documents available.

    What comes to mind is the potential threat of breaching national or personal security by putting sensitive information in the wrong hands. Administering this process would almost certainly incur a fee (salaries etc). Not censoring this information could be fatal.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 31.

    Bit like justice then. If you can afford it you can have it? What a way to run a democracy. Its like the online public records office. Every single record sheet is charged for. I just paid out £28 to see 8 months of one units war records.They really would prefer we didn't know.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 30.

    We need to differentiate between people asking to see documents - a straightforward process (that sort of stuff should be online anyway) - and people asking for complex data analysis to be done for them, or for personal information about themselves to be extracted from a data set - which take up staff time and ought to be chargeable.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 29.

    If FOI was a free service, the cost to administer the process of delivering information would have to come from somewhere else.

    I don't see how the private sector can benefit from funding this service meaning that the cost then falls to the tax payer.

    I know, let's tax the evil bankers to pay for FOI.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 28.

    I believe there is a strong case for most local authority documents to be open to scrutiny directly, not thro' FOI. Clearly there will be matters of confidentiality relating to personal records and third parties, but material discussions, decisions, file notes and reports should be accessible. There should be no 'off the record' activities on council business.
    At any level.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 27.

    "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."

    Can any of you see this kind of transparency being adopted by this or indeed any British government?

    No neither can I.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 26.

    There should be consequences for delays of FOI requests. We have such a colosal bureaucracy. Those who administer it need to know that every move will be scrutinised by someone outside the culture of their organisation. Otherwise bureaucracy will continue to be used for policy makers to hide behind & sack innocent workers. Stop whinging and get on with integrating FOI across public services.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 25.

    If it was not for FOI then we would not even know about MP's being corrupt with their expenses. Isn't it funny they are the 'voice' calling for FOI restrictions!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 24.

    If people are being made to pay for the information, which belongs to the taxpayer anyway, then yes the authorities should be fined (or the requestee given their money back) if the authority takes too long. They can't have it both ways !

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 23.

    As an ordinary citizen trying to find out basic info (in my case NHS staffing levels) one has to know, almost by osmosis, which one of a plethora of offices actually hold the data. Just knowing who to ask can be a challenge - especially true of the DWP! All data should be indexed & made available unless an exemption is applied for. However, after listening to Blair about his "big mistake" .....

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 22.

    I think it is a great idea that the departments or organisations who hold the information should be more repsonsible to the citizen.
    After all, citizens pay all the salaries of the many civil servants who would love to be really unaccountable.
    Another idea, if a FOI request was obstructed wilfully, perhaps the head of department/minister/official should lose her job.
    Too many refusals..fire them!

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 21.

    To be frank FOI in it's current form is a joke. I've tried to apply several times. There are a myriad of ways a corporate or government body can stall, stop or be "ruthlessly" selective in giving out the requested information. They can take months, legally, and still give you sod all.

    However at least we have FOI. It needs a complete overhaul to make it fairer to the electorate and more robust.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 20.

    foi is great and it is very much needed when our slimey government departments try to hold back information. eg the nhs reform risk register. which they are still refusing to comply with a ruling stating they must publish it.

  • rate this
    -5

    Comment number 19.

    Freedom of information is a nosey parkers charter. I wonder if there should be requirement for the person making the enquiry to justify their reasons. The cost burden of dealing with a request seems hard to justify in some cases, perhaps there should be a limit? Logically the threat of a FOI request would lead to more word of mouth dealing, and brief letters or memo's recording intentions.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 18.

    Why not simply and automatically make all information available via the internet.

    None of these 'commercially sensitive' or 'national security' excuses.

    Let's have it all out in the open.

    We can call it Wiki-info or something similar!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 17.

    A one of the taxpayers, who pay for the time and effort expended answering FOIs, I am concerned that there is no way of screening the frivolrous requests from the genuine ones.
    I have no desire to subsidise speculators seeking a profit, or to encourage those hoping to make money from fines for late replies.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 16.

    I think we should scrap the FOI system altogether, but then what would the BBC do to get 'news' stories? And what would Martin do for a living? :o

 

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