Freedom of Information must remain free, say MPs
By Vivienne Russell | 26 July 2012
MPs have dismissed the idea of charges for Freedom of Information requests, but acknowledge that the regime could be more self-funding.
Witnesses to a Commons inquiry had called for fees to be introduced for FoI requests to offset the costs to public organisations. But in a report published today, the justice select committee concluded that although the FoI did create costs, it also led to savings when cases of inappropriate use of public funds were uncovered.
The MPs added that setting a fee at a high enough level to recoup costs would be likely to deter some requests with a strong public interest, defeating the purpose of the legislation.
Committee chair Sir Alan Beith said: ‘Evidence we have seen suggests that reducing the cost of FoI can be achieved if the way public authorities deal with requests is well-thought through.
‘Complaints about the cost of FoI will ring hollow when made by public authorities which have failed to invest the time and effort needed to create an efficient freedom of information scheme.’
The MPs also recommended that all public bodies should be required to publish data on the timeliness of their responses to FoI requests and for higher fines to be levied on those that destroy information or data.
Beith said the Freedom of Information Act had ‘enhanced the UK’s democratic system and made our public bodies more open, accountable and transparent’. He dismissed complaints, made by some former ministers and mandarins, that the legislation had removed the ‘safe space’ for policy making at the heart of government.
‘The Act was never intended to prevent, limit or stop the recording of policy discussions in Cabinet or at the highest levels of government, and we believe that its existing provisions, properly used, are sufficient to maintain the “safe space” for such discussions,’ he said.
‘These provisions need to be more widely understood within the public service.’