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December 21, 2015

Hands Off FoI: Council says fees would not be ‘appropriate’ and calls on Government to consider providing more funding

By William Turvill

Middlesbrough Council has given its backing to the Freedom of Information Act and said it will "stand against any attempts to weaken it".

The council made the statement in response to the Government's Independent Commission of Freedom of Information, which is considering whether to impose FoI fees and provide greater exemptions for public authorities.

Middlesbrough Council has noted that FoI requests have increased, but said the introduction of fees would not be "appropriate". It said that instead the Government "should consider providing further resources to councils to deal with requests for information".

The commission has published a handful of council submissions, including one from the Local Government Association. Many of these bodies called for fees to be introduced and for time limits on responses to be shortened. Cumbria County Council said: "Councils should… be enabled to refuse media requests that could be considered as 'lazy journalism' that will clearly not inform genuine investigative journal ism or that will not result in 'news' that is not in the public interest."

But Middlesbrough Council's Overview and Scrutiny Board has ruled that the act should not be weakened.

Councillor Jean Sharrocks, chair of OSB, said: "The panel felt strongly that we oppose any efforts to weaken FoI provisions and that people's rights to request information be protected.

"On the issue of charging we felt this could disenfranchise people and so was not appropriate.

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"Often the information people require is already published on the Council's website so we should perhaps be looking to reduce the workload in relation on the back of FoI requests by directing people to that, and also publishing more information proactively."

The council said that in 2005, the first year of the act, it received less than 300 requests and this increased to more than 1,300 in 2014.

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