A survey of local councils, aimed at gathering information to push for restrictions to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, has been criticised by the Campaign for Freedom of Information. A body representing local authority lawyers has appealed to councils on behalf of the Local Government Association (LGA) saying the LGA is thinking of calling for changes to the Act and asking them to supply details of “problems” caused by it. [*]
The survey appears in an April 2014 edition of the bulletin produced by Lawyers in Local Government. It says the LGA is “considering pressing the Government again for changes to the FOI legislation, having regard to the cost and time in handling FOI requests”. It says the LGA is particularly concerned about “the use of the FOI process by researchers and campaigners for their benefit at our expense” and asks for statistics on the proportion of requests made by “media, campaigning bodies, commercial or business bodies undertaking their own research” and the time and cost of dealing with “research type” FOI requests.
The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel says “it is amazing to see the LGA treat FOI requests from campaigners and researchers as a ‘problem’ which needs to be dealt with. Do they think organisations using FOI to campaign for better services are abusing the Act? That is what it is there for. They are treating requests from anyone other than individuals as undesirable including those from non-profit campaign bodies, researchers and journalists”.
“The survey being carried out at the LGA’s request shows no interest in hearing about improvements to services resulting from FOI disclosures or financial savings made because FOI has revealed wasteful spending. Nor do they ask whether authorities have found ways of dealing with FOI requests more efficiently, which they might want to share with other councils” he added.
The Campaign pointed out that in November 2012 the government said it was considering changes to FOI rules to allow public authorities to refuse more requests on cost grounds. It is still considering these. The government said that its aim is to target the ‘disproportionate burden’ caused by requesters making ‘industrial’ use of the Act. But the Campaign says that its proposals would make it easier for authorities to refuse all requests including those of substantial public interest made by occasional FOI users.
It added that the Upper Tribunal, the top level body dealing with FOI appeals, has since extended the definition of what can be refused as a ‘vexatious’ request specifically to catch those which cause disproportionate burdens without justification. (See: www.cfoi.org.uk/campaigns/stop-foi-restrictions).
The Campaign said that a full review of the Act by the House of Commons Justice select committee in 2012 concluded that it was “a significant enhancement of our democracy” that was “working well”. The committee added: “We do not believe that there has been any general harmful effect at all on the ability to conduct business in the public service, and in our view the additional burdens are outweighed by the benefits.” (Post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, HC 96-I)
The Campaign is calling for people who have successfully used FOI to influence decisions or proposed policies to let it have the details to help oppose new restrictions. It can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
The full text of the piece in the LLG bulletin is as follows:
FOI information wanted
The LGA are considering pressing the Government again for changes to the FOI legislation, having regard to the cost and time in handling FOI requests. One development seems to be the use of the FOI process by researchers and campaigners for their benefit at our expense. The LGA do however need hard evidence to support their arguments with the Government. It would be helpful to have some basic statistics from LAs on the following:
- Number of FOI requests per year from 2005 to date
- Percentage increases from year to year
- Proportion (percentage) of FOI applications from the media, campaigning bodies, commercial or business bodies undertaking their own research
- Average time taken, and cost of dealing with the research type requests
- Any other trends creating problems
Please pass this request to your info officer(s) to respond to the LGA with as much info on the above lines as possible, to inform the LGA’s discussions with the Government. Whilst FOI is now a fact of life, it may be possible and practical to make some changes to the system which may compensate LAs for the cost of people and bodies exploiting the system for commercial purposes. Please send information to email@example.com
[*] Note: The original version of this press release attributed the survey to the LGA itself. This is has been corrected to show that the survey was carried out by LLG at the request of the LGA.
Maurice Frankel or Katherine Gundersen: 020 7490 3958