FoI fees loom, cabinet memo suggests

The government plans to impose charges for Freedom of Information requests in order to deter "serial requesters", of information, according to a confidential cabinet document obtained by the Sunday Times.

In a memo dated 17 July, Constitutional Affairs Secretary Lord Falconer (pictured) proposed making it easier for public bodies to reject "difficult" requests and imposing a charge for requesting information.

Under the current Fees Regulations, FoI requests are free but government departments can reject them if they cost more than £650 to process. Local authorities may cap processing costs at £450.

Under Falconer's proposals, the activities that public bodies may count toward that cap would be expanded to include the man-hours needed to read and redact documents to be released.

The memo indicated that officials estimate that would allow public bodies to reject at least 17 per cent of "the most difficult requests" filed by "determined and experienced requesters", the Sunday Times reported.

Falconer's memo also indicated that he is also considering introducing a flat fee for each FoI request.

"It is likely individual flat fees will cost more to collect that they bring in, but their deterrent effect will inhibit many seial requesters from making numerous requets with no regard to the cost to public funds," Falconer is reported to have told his cabinet colleagues.

Martin Rosenbaum, head of the BBC's FoI Unit, reported last month that the Department for Constitutional Affairs had confirmed to him that it had conducted projections on the impact of various fee levels, but refused to release details.

In the Republic of Ireland, FoI requests plummeted following the introduction of a €15 (£10) fee for each request in July 2003. In 2004, there were 32 per cent fewer FoI requests made in Ireland than in 2003.

According to figures from the Irish Information Commissioner, journalists made almost 63 per cent fewer requests under the Irish FOIA in 2004 than they had in 2003, and although the total number of requests by journalists increased last year, they now account just 6.5 per cent of requests, down from 14.5 per cent in 2003.

Any move to amend the FoI fees regime would run counter to the recommendations made last month by the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee. In a report on the FoI Act this month, the committee of MPs said it sees "no need to change the fees regulations" and urged Falconer to conduct a public consultation before deciding any change.

Last week, the Campaign for Freedom of Information issued a list of 500 stories that journalists had been able to produce using the new legislation since it came into force 18 months ago.

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