Ireland reviews FOI fee which cut request level in half

The House of Commons Justice Committee has been reviewing the Freedom of Information Act, and during this process it seems to have some taken some interest in what's been happening in Ireland, which a few years ago introduced an up-front fee for making FOI requests.

But while some UK politicians may be thinking of following suit, the Irish government could soon be heading back in the opposite direction.

The idea is favoured by those who think it would inhibit time-wasters posing trivial questions, but opposed by others who fear it would deter legitimate requesters, especially of course those with more limited resources.

However the Committee was given some confusing evidence on the longer-term impact of this measure in Ireland. It was told that the number of FOI requests, which dropped dramatically when this charge was introduced in 2003, has now risen back to the previous level.

But this is not correct. Its impact was clearly to deter many FOI requesters, and this deterrent effect has persisted, halving the number of applications from about 8,000 annually to about 4,000. The fee is 15 euros, with a lower rate for benefit claimants.

The recent position is clear from the latest annual report of Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) in Ireland, which was released this week with the statistics for 2011.

The data are complicated by the fact that Ireland's FOI law - and the country's Information Commissioner - covers requests both for personal and non-personal information. However the up-front fee is only charged for applications for non-personal information and for mixed requests which involve both kinds - a point which is sometimes forgotten by those who simply examine the total number of requests.

I have extracted the figures for non-personal and mixed requests from the OIC annual reports, and this shows the following pattern:

1999 was the first full year of freedom of information in Ireland. Up-front fees were introduced in July 2003. There are some caveats needed. This doesn't take account of changes in the range of public authorities covered by FOI, nor in the nature of the documents which can be sought. It's also possible that requesters might have responded to fees by grouping several requests into one - this behaviour was reported by some public authorities.

Ireland's FOI law is under review currently, just as the UK's one is. In its programme for government, the Fine Gael / Labour coalition formed last year promised to extend FOI and stated: "We will legislate to restore the Freedom of Information Act to what it was before it was undermined by the outgoing Government."

It was the outgoing government led by Fianna Fail which brought in the up-front fee amongst other changes. The current Irish government is now considering internally how to put its pledge into practice.

In other words, if this promise is implemented, it seems possible that the Irish government may reverse the introduction of FOI fees just at the same time that some UK politicians are thinking of bringing them in.