More freedom of information requests are likely to be refused as vexatious under new guidance, the Campaign for Freedom of Information has warned.
The group has said the guidelines remove the Government’s case for introducing new restrictions and has called for the plans to be dropped.
In November last year the Government proposed a series of changes to the FoI Act to make it easier for requests to be seen as “disproportionately burdensome” and refused.
The campaign group claims the changes would increase the chances of all requests being blocked – and not just the targeted group of people who make excessive use of the Act.
In particular, the campaign group is critical of the proposal to lower the cost limit at which public authorities can refuse a request. The cost limit currently stands at £600 for Government departments and £450 for other bodies.
Campaign director Maurice Frankel said: “Any request raising new, complex or contentious issues would be at risk of being refused, simply because of the time needed to consider unfamiliar issues.
“If FoI staff are inexperienced they will need still more time to deal with complex requests, increasing the chances of a cost refusal.
“Some authorities might deliberately claim they have to consult more widely than is strictly necessary to ensure that the cost exceeds the limit.
“Critically, cost refusals take no account of the public interest in disclosure – so many important requests could be refused.”
The campaign has also criticised the proposal to allow for individuals’ separate FoI questions to be considered together in terms of cost – thereby making them easier to be refused.
The Government has also proposed that there should be charges for the cost of appealing to the tribunal over an FoI rejection, according to the group.
The campaign has written to Justice minister Lord McNally and is urging MPs to sign an early day motion put forward by Conservative MP and FoI campaigner Sir Richard Shepherd. It calls on the Government to ditch its proposals.
In it, Shepherd “expresses concern that requests by those making moderate use of the legislation will also be more easily refused under the proposals”.
The motion also states that it “is particularly concerned at the proposal that the time which authorities spend considering whether to release information should be taken into account when calculating whether the cost limit has been reached”.
It adds “that this proposal was expressly rejected by the Justice Committee in its post-legislative review of the Act” and “believes that this proposal will penalise requests raising new or complex issues which will inevitably require substantial time to consider”.
The EDM has so far been signed by 22 MPs across all major political parties.