The Government has issued its response to a review of the Freedom of Information Act by a scrutiny committee.

They agree that the Freedom of Information Act has led to “significant enhancements of our democracy” and that the act has increase openness  transparency and accountability but are critical of many of the proposals put forward.

Main points
  • Government may reduce £600 (central government) and £450 (other authorities) cost limit for replying to requests.
  • Government wishes for individuals to contribute more to the costs of FOI tribunals.
  • The Information Commissioner will be able to bring a prosecution against someone suspected of altering, or destroying records, preventing publication within six months of being informed about the case, rather than within six months of the event happening.
  • Universities shall remain subject to the Act, but a dedicated exemption will be introduced to protect the research of academics.
  • Consultations with more than 2,200 authorities to include them in the act will continue and reforms to make adding and removing authorities from the Act easier will be looked at.

As well as the above the Government responded on many issues relating to the Freedom of Information request and in a lot of cases disagreed with the committee.

Here is a breakdown of the response: 

Internal reviews

The Government disagreed with the notion that internal reviews, made after a requester is dissatisfied with the original response to their request, should have to be responded to within a 20 working day period and if an authority is taking too long to respond they requester should complain to the Information Commissioners’ Office. They will also establish best practice guides for internal reviews.

They may clarify what a reasonable amount of time to respond to an internal review is, in the code of practice.

Publishing FOI statistics 

The scrutiny report called for all organisations to routinely publish statistics of how well they are responding to requests, e.g. the amount responded to in time. Government disagreed with the idea, saying many already do, and it would add an extra burden to authorities.

Offence of altering records (section 77)

The Information Commissioner will be able to prosecute those who are suspected of altering records, in an attempt to prevent disclosure, within six months of being made aware of the act. This has changed from within six months of the act being committed.

The scrutiny board suggested the offence should be made more severe in law and it should be possible that any breaches could be heard in crown court, in front of a jury. Government disagreed with this and any offences will continue to be punishable by magistrates’ courts only.

Veto

Unsurprisingly the Government agrees that its own veto over requests should remain in place although it says it will review it.

Universities 

Will remain subject to the Act. Previously concern has been issued that research by those at Universities may not be protected by the act, the Government responded saying it is minded to introduce an exemption to protect the research of academics.

Adding authorities

The Government say they are continuing consultations with more than 200 public authorities and will begin consultations with 2,000 housing associations in the coming months and the Protection of Freedoms Act next year will subject another 100 authorities to the Act.

They also said they are concerned on how difficult it is to add and remove authorities to the Freedom of Information Act and it is going to consider options for reform.

Costs 

An important area of the response, and original committee proposals, has been the cost of the Act. Many public authorities, and especially local councils, have in recent weeks been very vocal about the amount of money responding to requests costs them each year. Both the Government and the scrutiny board are clear in the fact they want to reduce the overall cost of the Act, but not comprise on transparency – but the Government doesn’t agree with the proposals put forward.

It was proposed that the 18 hour time limit for gathering the data be reduced to 16 hours to help cut the costs of responding a request. The government dismissed this suggestion though saying it would only affect a small number of cases. Although, they did say they are going to consider reducing the overall £600 and £400 limits for authorities. This effectively sounds like a reduction to the number of hours, worded differently.

The hours which relate to the cost limit may also be calculated differently, the government said. Initially the committee said “reading and consideration time” would be difficult to include in the cost limit hours as they are dependent on the Freedom of Information officer’s abilities. The scrutiny committee argued that to include this time would be “introducing an element of inconsistency into the process that undermines the fundamental objective of the Act.”

Again the Government disagreed with this suggestion:

The Government does not share the assessment of the Committee that it is unfeasible to develop an objective and fair methodology for calculating the cost limit which includes further time spent dealing with information in response to a request. As such, the Government is minded to explore
options for providing that time taken to consider and redact information can be included in reaching the cost limit.

No costs will be brought in for making requests, the Government confirmed, they said a charge would be difficult to administer and may cost more than it brings in.

However they have said they would like users to contribute more to the costs of tribunals, something which could deter those who feel their requests have been dealt with incorrectly from going to a tribunal. Also, the Government see no gain to be had in disclosing the name of the requester in disclosure logs, a move they say could potentially bring in Data Protection issues.

They conclude their response on costs by saying they are there to facilitate authorities and their responses to legislation and would rather not legislate to reduce the cost of the Freedom of Information Act. This means they will share guides of best practice and provide support to authorities dealing with requests.

Authorities will not have to tell each individual how much their request has cost.

You can read the Government’s full response here.

I am a journalist and author. I am a staff writer at the UK edition of WIRED magazine and in 2015 my book, Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists, was published. I created FOI Directory in 2012.

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