UK government could charge fees for requesting official information
Transparency campaigners ‘dismayed’ after the next information commissioner says the public should trust organisations
The public could be charged for requesting government information, according to the UK’s next information commissioner.
Speaking to MPs yesterday, John Edwards suggested that some people were “abusing” the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, which is used to hold public organisations to account.
He said that, for some FOI requests, it is “legitimate” to ask requesters to meet the cost of digging out the relevant information.
“Citizens wanting to engage often don’t understand the way in which government works." He suggested people should “entrust” government departments to release “the most relevant information”, instead of trying to obtain lots of official documents.
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Edwards was immediately criticised by transparency campaigners, who said they were “dismayed” by his remarks. They said the UK “may have the first information commissioner who is willing to take the initiative in proposing to restrict FOI rights”.
The idea of making FOI requesters pay for information was rejected in 2016, after a government review said it would not be “appropriate”, adding: “A fee for information requests could hamper [journalistic] investigations.”
Today, a spokesperson for the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) said: “We would hope that anyone appointed as the information commissioner would be a champion for public transparency and accountability, so we were dismayed when John Edwards focused on the administrative burden, costs and abuse of FOI.
“We would vigorously campaign against any new proposals to add more layers to government secrecy in the form of a financial deterrent.”
Landmark FOI tribunal
Edwards, who was the government’s preferred candidate for information commissioner, also admitted that he had not read the ruling from openDemocracy’s landmark tribunal case, in which the government’s use of a ‘Clearing House’ – a unit that coordinates FOI responses across government – was strongly criticised.
In the ruling, the judge criticised the government’s “profound lack of transparency” over the operation, which has been accused of blacklisting journalists and campaigners.
But Edwards told MPs: “I haven’t read that… I don’t see anything objectionable to the concept of a Clearing House in principle.”
openDemocracy’s tribunal victory has now sparked a parliamentary inquiry into the way in which the Cabinet Office handles FOI requests, and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) itself has repeatedly criticised the government over this issue.
Edwards went on to say: “If I see conduct which is attempting to subvert parliament’s intentions in enacting the Freedom of Information Act, I will certainly act.”
openDemocracy’s ‘Art of Darkness’ report published last November, revealed the many ways in which the government is undermining the right to access information, from stonewalling to schoolboy errors.
Speaking to the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Edwards told MPs that the “new electronic way of working” has led to a “proliferation of information”.
“The challenge that this represents when a member of the public exercises their right to ask for information about a particular topic – and they do so in a way which requires a department to, in effect, empty their pockets – it creates an extraordinary administrative burden.”
He added: “For some requests, I think it is legitimate to ask a requester to meet the costs of some of that administration.”
The committee approved his appointment as the next information commissioner on Friday.
Ministers have recently been found to have used their private emails to conduct government business, prompting questions over whether the use of such communications is an effort to dodge FOI requests.
Labour MP Kevin Brennan, who quizzed Edwards on FOI, told openDemocracy that he “will need to get quickly up to speed on the Cabinet Office’s systematic obstructionism when it comes to freedom of Information requests.
“I’m sure the committee will want to press him further on this when he gets to the UK and starts his new role.”
Katherine Gundersen, deputy director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: “John Edwards was cautious about taking a firm position on the FOI questions he was asked, understandably wanting to brief himself fully on the issues before commenting. Unfortunately, that did not deter him from suggesting off his own bat that some requesters should be charged for making FOI requests, a topic no-one on the committee had even raised with him.
“He seemed unaware that the ICO has always opposed the introduction of charges. For the incoming commissioner to advocate a reversal of ICO policy on this critical issue before he’s even taken office is not an encouraging sign. We may have the first information commissioner who is willing to take the initiative in proposing to restrict FOI rights.”
mySociety, which runs a number of transparency projects including the FOI site WhatDoTheyKnow.com, warned in a recent report that the FOI Act is “sliding into obsolescence” without urgent reforms.
“Worryingly, John Edwards seemed uncertain on the questions specifically about FOI,” a spokesperson for mySociety said, adding that he seemed to be “more concerned with hypothetical abuse by the public rather than the demonstrable abuse of the process by public authorities.”
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