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How much does the government spend on trying to keep information it’s been told to publish a secret? It’s impossible to tell.

A widely shared blog post by Politics Home editor Ian Dunt pointed out it wasn’t possible to find out how much the Department of Work and Pensions spent on legal proceedings for an appeal to a Freedom of Information request.

This reminded me of a series of a recent series of written parliamentary questions by MP John Woodcock who has been trying to find out more information on the very same topic.

In each question, put to 18 central government departments, he said:

To ask the Secretary of State for [department name] how much his Department spent on legal fees in cases relating to the release of information requested under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in each of the last five years.

It was a question pretty much all the departments couldn’t answer. Only four of the eighteen did.

Of those that did answer they revealed legal costs from the last just short of £100,000.

The Department of Health: £2,346.40 (2013-2014), £22,627.71 in(2012-13) and nothing in the three financial years before that.
The Scotland Office: Nothing between 2012-14, £91 (2011-12), £431 (2010-11) and £9,068.94 (2009-10).
The Department for Transport: £31,785 (2014-15), £69 (2013-14), £3,068 (2012-13), £311 (2011-12), £32,404 (2010-11), £17,495 (2009-10).
The Wales Office: £0

The fees above don’t necessarily relate to any specific cases, or let us know what stage of the FOI system the money was spent on – and two of them come from the some of the smallest areas of government.

The best indicator is the, exceptional, case of the nine year FOI battle for Prince Charles letters lobbying ministers. The Guardian reported earlier this year, after a different parliamentary question, that the case has cost eight departments £270,000 between them.

When the cost to eight departments is split over eight years it doesn’t equal that much.

While these costs are minuscule in relation to the government departments’ budgets the cost is higher for the requester who wants to challenge for information to be disclosed to them.

When the Guardian won the case in the Court of Appeal the Attorney General was ordered to pay back the paper’s £96,000 legal fees.

For almost anyone other than a media group this would have been an incredibly difficult feat for them to achieve.

The case is now being appealed to the Supreme Court by the government – which will mean even greater legal fees for the news organisation.

Was the answer to Woodcock’s questions a negative one because they don’t know how much they spend on FOIs legal proceedings?

No.

It’s because, and it’s one of the most frustrating parts of requesting information, the information isn’t held in a way that’s easy to get at.

It’s highly likely that the systems/records which hold the information asked for weren’t designed for extracting the details and thus it means it would take far too long to differentiate the different files and where the money was being spent.

Or as indicated by one of the departments, the information gets transferred across to the Treasury – meaning they deal with it as part of a more centralised budget.

This is summed up by the, pretty standard, response from the Department for Communities and Local Government:

This information could be provided only at disproportionate cost.

In a modern government that spouts about wanting to be the most open in the world, up-to-date recording systems should be crucial. When departments aren’t even able to use the same systems to record information it’s clear something should be addressed when coming from a position of openness.

In an ideal world they would be able to pull out the information requesters want at the drop of the hat but that’s something we will have to keep waiting for.

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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