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October 13, 2015updated 16 Oct 2015 4:22pm

Cost to central Government of complying with FoI 50 times less than external comms budget

By William Turvill

Proposals to charge for Freedom of Information Act requests have been condemned by campaigners after Press Gazette research found central Government departments spend less than £6m a year answering FoI questions.

This figure is "very good value for money considering the level of scrutiny and accountability it generates", according to Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

It represents around 0.001 per cent of the £577.4bn the central Government is due to spend in the 2015 fiscal year (figure from UKpublicspending.co.uk).

And it is less than 2 per cent of the estimated £289m the Government Communication Service said it would spend on external communications activities in 2014/15. This figure was set out in the Government Communications Plan 2014/15, published by the GCS and signed off by 16 directors of communications across central Government departments.

According to Ministry of Justice figures, between July 2014 and June 2015, the 21 UK departments of state dealt with 30,616 “non-routine information requests”.

And the latest Ministry of Justice estimate on the cost of the average FoI response – which dates back to 2012 – to a central Government department was £184. The report said: “Overall, each FOI request submitted to a central government department cost an average of £184 in staff time to resolve. Requests took an average of 6 hours and 10 minutes to complete, with the average cost of staff time calculated at £30 per hour.”

Therefore, these requests would have cost an estimated £5.6m. The Campaign for Freedom of Information said this figure sounded acccurate.

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An independent commission established by the Government is currently considering proposed reviews to the Freedom of Information Act, which could see the introduction of charges for certain requests. The issue of fees will be examined by the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information as part of a wider look at the "burden" the act places on public authorities.The review will also examine whether cabinet ministers should be allowed to veto the publication of sensitive material as they have done in the past.

Frankel said the comparison between the cost of Government Communications Service and FoI figures show the latter represents “very good value for money”.

He told Press Gazette: “What it shows is that the cost of FoI is not great compared to the cost of Government publicity services generally.

“It is very good value for money considering the level of scrutiny and accountability it generates.

“And you also have to bear in mind that FoI deters wasteful spending. It plays a particularly important part in highlighting unjustified spending and discouraging authorities from repeating that kind of expenditure so there’s a saving money aspect to this, which is rarely quantified, but is real.”

He said, for instance, that when FoI laws were first introduced, journalists exposed local authorities “spending large sums of money taking their councillors and senior officials away on expensive junkets”. Frankel said: “That will have gone down substantially because of FoI.”

The FOIMan blog, which is run by Paul Gibbons, a consultant and trainer in information rights and information management, has estimated the cost of responding to FoIs for 20 of the 21 departments considered by Press Gazette is £5.7m a year. FoIs to these departments revealed a spend of £150.7m on press, communications and marketing.

Gibbons wrote: "Compared to the cost of other communications – including what is popularly known as 'spin' – FOI is not remotely expensive. Yet it is the cost of FOI which is attracting focused attention from a specially established commission."

Dia Chakravarty, political director at the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: "FoI serves an extremely important role in holding our politicians accountable and keeping wasteful spending in check.

"If authorities are truly concerned about keeping FOI-related cost down then they can simply make public spending more transparent so that a lot of the information is freely available without having to file FoI requests.

"A number of American states already do this so it is no novel idea."

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

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