3 Costs and fees |
How much does the freedom of
information regime cost?
47. Before considering the details of the costs
exemption contained in section 12 of the Act, we wanted to find
an approximate figure for the overall cost. We discovered that
establishing such a figure for the freedom of information regime
as a whole is difficult for a number of reasons. The Act applies
to a wide variety of public authorities, some of which record
numbers of requests, others which do not.
Public authorities also have different criteria for treating a
request for information as coming under the Act or as an informal
inquiry. Actual costs are even more rarely recorded than the number
of requests, and methods of recording them also vary widely.
By their nature, individual freedom of information requests will
require different amounts of staff time, from ones that can be
simply answered or rejected to requests requiring time-consuming
redaction or extensive consideration by very senior members of
staff. The Constitution Unit found that a widespread difference
in methodologies made international comparisons of the costs of
the right to access information in other countries almost impossible.
48. Despite the difficulties attempts have been
made to assess the financial impact of the Act on public authorities.
The 2006 Frontier Economics report for the Department of Constitutional
Affairs estimated the cost of freedom of information requests
to central Government in 2005 at £35.5 million,
although its methodology has been heavily criticised by the Constitution
Unit among others.
The Constitution Unit itself estimated the cost of freedom of
information to local government at £31.6 million in 2010.
49. Assessing the true cost of the freedom of
information regime is also difficult given that the benefits that
arise from the right to access information cannot usually be costed.
Dr Ben Worthy, of the Constitution Unit, told us:
The difficulty is that people, particularly those
at the top of organisations, see transparency as something with
concentrated costs and dispersed benefits [...] one of the difficulties
is seeing the benefits in concrete terms in the same way that
you can easily and quickly see the financial costs and, in some
cases, the political costs of openness. There may be a bias in
the discussion about how much FOI costs [...]
50. Several witnesses gave us examples of where
money had been directly saved by the exposure of inefficiency
or poor practice. David Hencke, Senior Investigative Journalist
for ExaroNEWS who appeared before us on behalf of the National
Union of Journalists, told us about a recent story he had broken
which arose from a freedom of information request which revealed
that the head of the Student Loans Company was being paid through
a company rather than by his employer and was therefore paying
a lower rate of tax: "The general feeling is that the Lester
case, frankly, was a complete fiddle. It was the only known case
of someone getting paid holidays and a pension who was actually
Mr Hencke calculated that the revelations "saved the taxpayer
at least £26,000, if not £40,000" as Mr Lester's
contract had been varied as a result of the publicity, but that
the consequent savings of the Government's decision to cease payment
of civil servants through companies saved much more.
Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, also
highlighted the deterrent effect of the greater level of transparency
introduced by the Act:
One of the early freedom of information requests
in Scotland revealed that councillors in a particular authority
were flying all over the world to go to flower shows spending
£6,000 a trip to go to Tokyo for a flower show. That stopped
the moment FOI exposed it. There is a lot of that happening. Indeed,
the Government are encouraging the use of freedom of information
precisely for that purpose. If you simply count the cost of answering
requests and not the savings that result from them and from the
anticipation of requests, you will miscalculate their overall
Mr Frankel emphasised that the deterrent effect of
the right to access specific information could not simply be substituted
by imposing proactive publication requirements on public authorities
because, when considering the mandatory publication of expenditure
over £500 for local authorities for example, "if you
look at the way some of them publish them, [they are] incomprehensible
without making an FOI request to find out what the money is being
Other witnesses, including The Press newspaper in York,
and Newsquest Midlands South,
provided a number of individual examples where increased transparency
had led to direct and indirect savings to the public purse.
51. Beyond the direct and indirect financial
impact of the Act other benefits, such as greater openness and
accountability as well as a better informed citizenry, are incalculable
in monetary terms. The role of access to information in a democracy
was highlighted by Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield:
[...] the Freedom of Information Act [...] was the
completion of the circle that began with the extension of the
franchise. It took from 1832 to 1948 to get to one person one
vote, but the remaining arc was the knowledge bit, the test being
whether an elector could cast an informed vote if he or she wanted
to and really tried hard to find the stuff. The answer was that
until the Freedom of Information Act very probably not. It has
to be seen as part of completing the virtues of the franchise
in an open society.
52. David Higgerson, Digital Publishing Director
of Trinity Mirror Regionals and appearing before us on behalf
of the Newspaper Society, told us that the costs argument made
by public authorities could be viewed as a "Trojan horse"
for organisations whose real concern was the embarrassment that
can arise from revelations following a freedom of information
[...] if the cost argument carried sway at a time
when the public sector was under a lot of strain, we would end
up with a Freedom of Information Act that was massively watered
down, whether through trying to impose costs at point of entry,
reducing the hours available per request or the loading up of
duties that could fall within those hours. Basically, we are saying
that the cost argument feels a bit like a Trojan horse for authorities
that do not like members of the public being able to ask the questions
that they want to ask.
The Constitution Unit agreed that the "Achilles'
heel" of the right to access information was likely to be
cost: "Resources are vital and are likely to be the Achilles'
heel of FOI. How much FOI 'costs' is a difficult issue, with competing
methodologies offering competing answers with bias in measuring
cost as the benefits are more difficult to measure."
53. The Freedom of Information
Act is a significant enhancement of our democracy. It gives the
public, the media and other parties a right to access information
about the way public institutions in England and Wales are governed,
and the way taxpayers' money is spent. Governments and public
authorities can promote greater transparency but, without FOI
requests, decisions on what to publish will always lie with those
in positions of power. FOI has costs, but it also creates savings
which accrue from the disclosure of inappropriate use of public
funds or, more importantly, fear of such disclosure.
The Fees Regulations
54. Section 12 of the Freedom of Information
Act provides that a public authority is not obliged to comply
with the duty to publish information if the cost of compliance
exceeds "the appropriate limit".
The appropriate limit is governed by the Freedom of Information
and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2004
which sets the cost at £600 for central Government and £450
for other public bodies.
This translates as 24 and 18 hours respectively based on a standard
charge of £25 per hour, regardless of the actual cost of
the staff time taken.
Public authorities can charge if the limit is breached.
When calculating the time taken to respond to a request authorities
can include searching for the information and drawing it together
but not reading it to see if exemptions apply, redacting data
or deciding whether it can be released. Few public authorities
use the charging mechanism:
UCL research relating to local authorities indicates
that a high proportion state that they never charge for information
with between 62% and 72% stating that they never charged for information
in the period 2005 to 2009. Of the remaining 28% to 38%, the clear
majority indicated that they charged in less than 5% of requests.
A small minority (peaking at 7% of respondents in 2007) indicated
that they charged in 6% of requests or more.
55. Durham University summarised the view of
many public authorities:
The Fees Regulations do not appropriately take in
to consideration the true cost of dealing with many FOI [...]
requests. The University is obliged to spend many more than 18
hours work on some information requests due to the fact that we
are unable to take time spent on reading and redacting information
into consideration when calculating the estimated cost of a response.
This has placed considerable burden on the central Data Protection
and FOI requests service as complex requests often require considerable
reading time and subsequent redaction time. The University is
not often able to apply the Section 12 exemption "Where cost
of compliance exceeds appropriate limit" as information is
usually easily located and retrieved.
Despite this evidence JISC InfoNet found the most
commonly used exemption in the university sector was section 12:
22% of disclosure refusals relied on the section 12 exemption
in 2010, increasing to 28% in 2011.
In contrast, Ministry of Justice statistics show that section
12 was not one of the eight most used exemptions by central Government
departments in 2011.
Overall, our evidence from public authorities reflected the finding
of the Memorandum that:
The appropriate cost limit is largely viewed as inappropriate
by public authorities who feel either that the limit is too high
or that the range of activities which can be included in its calculation
are not comprehensive enough.
56. Alex Skene, from the website WhatDoTheyKnow
which helps people seeking to make a request under the Act, told
us: "The cost limits are broadly about right, because, although
many of them tend to go over the limit, those requests are very
much on the lines of, "Give me everything you've got on this
Maurice Frankel, of the Campaign for Freedom of Information,
gave us the view of requestors:
[the scheme] is a compromise. The UK has an unusual
arrangement, which other countries generally do not have. They
generally have a provision that allows authorities to refuse if
it would result in an unreasonable diversion of their resources,
and you have to work that out each time. We have an absolute limit
of £600 or £450, which cannot be exceeded even when
there is a substantial public interest in gaining access to the
information. It is a compromise, with a requirement that people
moderate their requests to keep within that limit, and on the
whole they do not pay for the information. It gives people a reasonably
good chance, but you also see that very large numbers of requests
are refused because they exceed the cost limit. It is quite a
tricky matter for people to bring a request within the cost limit
if they do not get good advice from the public authority on how
to do it and what information they hold.
57. Paul Gibbons, who runs the blog FOIMan and
has had responsibility for freedom of information while working
with a number of public authorities, was concerned that altering
the current regime "could disproportionately affect legitimate
research and scrutiny of the public sector [...]"
58. In 2006, a report by Frontier Economics for
the Department of Constitutional Affairs recommended that what
have been termed 'thinking' activities (reading, considering whether
exemptions apply, redaction) be included in the 18 hour limit
if an appropriate methodology for calculation could be found.
The Memorandum notes that this suggestion was rejected by
the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee on the grounds the
Frontier Economics report had failed to give sufficient weight
to the public interest in access to information or to the wider
benefits of the right to access information and that a change
to the appropriate limit regime would require a most rigorous
This argument was accepted by the Government which abandoned plans
to change the Fees Regulations. The central difficulty with broadening
the types of activity included in the 18 hour limit was summarised
by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection:
It is very difficult to see how thinking time could
be assessed in any objective, consistent way. Some people read
quickly, some less quickly. Whether an exemption applies should
not depend on the lottery of whether a request comes before a
slow reader or a quick reader. Similarly, some FoI officers will
be more conscientious than others in considering the exemptions.
The more conscientious an officer is, the more likely the request
would fail an expanded section 12 test. In some cases an almost
limitless amount of time considering case law could be spent.
The length of a document cannot be determinativeit may
be much more difficult to decide whether an exemption applies
with a short document than with a much longer one. Would time
thinking about a request in the bath be allowed? If not, why not?
59. Leeds City Council suggested that the appropriate
limit was "wholly unrealistic and outdated" and should
be calculated by reference to the "actual cost of staff time"
rather than the standard £25 an hour.
One difficulty with this suggestion is that it would produce uneven
results; an important issue with a strong public interest which
had to be considered by a senior member of staff, even briefly,
would be more easily refused than a trivial request which could
be answered in full by a junior official. Matters most worthy
of scrutiny, therefore, would often be the ones which a public
authority could refuse to release information on. As the Campaign
for Freedom of Information noted, such a system would also be
open to abuse:
Authorities could propose to involve a lawyer, talk
the matter over with one or two extra officials, or consult additional
third parties, where it was not strictly necessary, simply to
increase the chances of refusing the request on cost grounds.
Finally, the process of determining the actual cost
of a request would be expensive and time-consuming in itself,
whether the cost was calculated when the request was received
or whether the process was pursued until the financial cut-off
60. Developing a methodology
whereby subjective activities such as reading and consideration
time could be included in the 18 hour time limit does not seem
to us to be a feasible proposition. Such activities are overly
dependent on the individual FOI officer's abilities, introducing
an element of inconsistency into the process that undermines the
fundamental objective of the Act, that everyone has an equal right
to access information.
61. We recognise, however, that
complying with its duties under the Act can be a significant cost
to a public body. A standard marginal decrease in the 18 hour
limit may be justifiable to alleviate the pressure on hard-pressed
authorities, particularly in the context of increasing numbers
of requests. We would suggest something in the region of two hours,
taking the limit to 16 hours rather than 18, but anticipate the
Government would want to carry out further work on how this would
affect the number of requests rejected under section 12, and the
corresponding weakening of the right to access information.
Potential cost drivers
NUMBERS OF REQUESTS
62. The available data suggests that the number
of freedom of information requests is growing. Ministry of Justice
figures for requests made to central Government departments suggest
"the number of requests has grown rapidly between 2005 to
2011an average of 4% per year",
although the other central Government bodies monitored by the
Ministry of Justice, such as the Health and Safety Executive,
remained relatively stable.
The Constitution Unit estimated that the number of freedom of
information requests to local government had risen from 60,361
to 197,737 between 2005 and 2010, a rise of over 200%.
An annual review of the number of requests received by universities
has been carried out by JISC InfoNet since 2005. It found that
there was an average monthly number of requests under the Act
per institution of 10.1 in 2011 compared to 8.6 in 2010, and 2.8
in 2005. The Foundation Trust told us its members had concerns
that "the number of requests [is] growing rapidly to the
point of being overwhelming [...]"
63. Research suggests that the reason for the
growth in freedom of information requests is better awareness
of the legislation. Dr Ben Worthy told us that high profile media
stories related to freedom of information requests, such as MPs'
expenses, together with revelations about local matters, led to
more people becoming aware of and using the Act. This was reflected
by the appearance of "clusters" of inquiries about the
same issue: "many officers told us [...] that FOI requests
come in waves. They cluster around particular issues. For example,
when it snows there will be a spate of requests about gritting
or holes in the road; there will be a spate of requests about
RIPA and surveillance legislation when those stories come up.
It is not one group making requests. Lots of people are quite
interested in these subjects."
Professor Robert Hazell told us that this relationship between
greater awareness of the Act and greater use of the Act was seen
in other countries:
All countries see an increase in the volume of requests
in the early years of FOI. I first started studying FOI over 25
years ago, when I was a civil servant. I had a travelling fellowship
for a year, and I went to Australia, Canada and New Zealand about
three or four years after they had first introduced FOI. In Australia
and Canada, where they kept statistics, they saw quite dramatic
increases in the first three years or so. The UK is no exception.
People gradually learn about the existence of the Act and read
about it through the media, and so it builds up in that way.
Professor Hazell noted that the international picture
did not reveal a consistent pattern as to when the volume of requests
The Nuclear Information Service noted that a greater volume of
requests can be considered "an indicator of the success of
the Freedom of Information Act [...]"
GREATER COMPLEXITY OF REQUESTS
64. The NHS and university sectors told us that
the requests they received were growing in complexity. Wyn Taylor,
of the Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital, reflected the views
of several NHS organisations from whom we received evidence when
he told us:
The requests themselves have increased greatly in
complexity [...] since the Act was introduced. In 2005, there
would be one very straightforward question asking for one very
specific document, whereas now one request can include up to 20
or 30 individual questions. Those questions are not confined to
one specific area within the organisation. They are directed to
a number of areas such as nursing, IT, estates, contracts and
performance. [This means that] the cost of complying with the
requests has increased significantly since the Act was introduced.
We heard similar evidence from Universities UK that
"the cost and complexity of requests appears to be increasing"
which it said was demonstrated by the increasing amount of time
taken for each request to be processed.
However, we were also told that simple but broad requests, for
a whole dataset or a large document, also had the potential to
be very time-consuming and so costly because the information had
to be read to see if exemptions applied and, if appropriate, redacted,
neither activities which are included in the 18 hour time limit.
SMALL NUMBER OF HIGH COST REQUESTS
65. In a review of the international literature
on the cost of freedom of information requests, the Constitution
Despite the differences in methodologies, a common
finding in each report was the financial impact of administering
a small number of disproportionately expensive requests. For example
in the UK, although only 5% of requests cost more than £1,000
of officials' time, they tended to take 7 times longer to process
than average requests and accounted for 45% of total costs. Such
requests have undoubtedly bolstered final figures and, in some
respects, skewed final costing data as they exceed the statutory
price limit each country has in place in order to avoid these
66. Estimates of the relative cost of the freedom
of information regime in central and local government suggest
that the cost to central Government per request is considerably
higher. The Constitution
Unit found that much of the additional financial cost came from
the high number of internal reviews: "Internal reviews are
particularly expensive for government departments. Annually, requests
to central Government generate approximately 2,700 internal reviews.
On average, central [Government] reviews cost £1,208more
than 5 times the amount of an initial request." Consulting
ministers was, unsurprisingly, particularly expensive.
67. Evidence from central Government officials
suggested to us that the relatively high numbers of internal reviews
were due, at least in part, to the type of information held by
central Government which will inevitably be subject to more exemptions
and therefore more likely to be argued over. Roger Smethurst of
the Cabinet Office described the difficulties encountered by his
Department, which could make internal reviews more likely:
[...] the Cabinet Office holds a lot of sensitive
information. In order to conduct the public interest test, we
need to consult very senior stakeholders, both in Government and
beyond, and that takes time. It is burdensome. Sometimes, if there
are large volumes of information, it can be very difficult indeed.
68. While individual requests vary enormously
in how much they cost it should be noted that the requests which
are cheapest to process may be the applications which can best
be described as frivolous. We heard from witnesses who have fielded
inquiries about paranormal activities in council owned properties,
whether the Cabinet Office has contingency plans in case of an
attack by zombies
and similar. While we consider whether these are legitimate inquiries
in Chapter 5 below, witnesses told us they can usually be disposed
of following a brief telephone call or email, which means they
Requests where disclosure of the information is in the public
interest, however, may require significantly more resource. Focusing
on the cost of individual inquires can obscure this important
What would be the impact of introducing
fees for requests?
69. As outlined above, a request under the Freedom
of Information Act is usually free for the requestor.
It has been suggested to us by some public authorities that we
should investigate the feasibility of charging fees for some or
all requests. We canvassed a number of options with our witnesses.
FEES FOR ALL REQUESTS- THE VIEWS
OF OUR WITNESSES
The impact of fee charging
70. Our witnesses held divergent views on the
desirability of introducing fees for all freedom of information
requests. The Rt Hon Jack Straw MP was in favour of introducing
a fee "parallel to that for data protection requests. It
would be about £10."
Michelle Thew, Chief Executive of the British Association for
the Abolition of Vivisection, while noting "there may be
broader principles for individuals about the Act and charging",
suggested that campaigning groups were not likely to reduce the
volume of their requests: "we would not oppose the introduction
of a small fee. The £10 level has been discussed; that would
not be a problem for us."
The media, in contrast, told us that the introduction of fees
would reduce their use of the Act. David Higgerson said charging
would "certainly" result in reduced use of the Act for
"because we would not be guaranteed a result from FOI requests,
they would probably stop using it altogether."
Doug Wills, Managing Editor of the Evening Standard, i,
Independent and Independent on Sunday, agreed that
charging would reduce the use of the Act by the large daily newspapers
as well: "It would reduce the volume of questions, unquestionably,
even at the Evening Standard [...] It would reduce the
number of questions that we were putting for budgetary reasons."
71. Birmingham City Council supported the introduction
of a standard fee:
One possibility would be to adopt the charging regime
for subject access requests, i.e. levying a flat rate initial
fee of e.g. £25 per request. This would force requestors
to moderate their requests to the information they need, rather
than sending the same request to hundreds of public authorities,
each of which would have to search or respond to the request or
direct them to the Council website if the information has been
While some witnesses from public authorities expressed
support for charging this was usually directed at specific types
of requestors, such as journalists or applicants who would benefit
commercially from the information. We consider possible models
for targeting fees at certain categories of requestors below.
72. Mr Straw's motivation for introducing a charge
was to reduce the volume of requests. He told us that a £10
fee "would not stop important requests, but it would act
as a check."
The Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFOI) suggested, however,
that the impact of a small charge was most likely to deter those
of limited means regardless of the importance of the request:
"Larger media organisations, well funded charities and businesses
might continue to make frequent use of the Act, while small scale
users might ration or forego their use of it."
The CFOI gave the example of a mother in dispute with social services
over whether her child should be taken into care as one example
where a person of limited means would benefit from, for example,
making an FOI request for the protocol that midwives and health
visitors at her local maternity unit were required to follow in
order to put a child on the 'at risk' register. Equally, others
in dispute with a public authority "might need to make a
series of requests to it; some issues may require that requests
be made to a variety of involved agencies; and some research may
be carried out by making the same request to comparable authorities."
73. The CFOI also noted that the effect of a
standard charge would introduce an element of inconsistency into
the operation of the Act:
The introduction of application fees would mean that
those who explicitly relied on their statutory rights would pay,
whereas those who sought information without invoking, or in ignorance
of, their rights would not. This would create a two-tier system
in which those who could not pay, or were unaware of the access
right, might have information unjustifiably withheld, even if
it was clear that this could not be done under the legislation.
74. Witnesses also raised concerns over the cost
of administering charges. James Rogers, Assistant Chief Executive
of Leeds City Council, told us that his authority, as well as
many others, did not charge the £10 fee for Data Protection
Act requests because "the administrative burden of administering
the charge outweighs the issues in terms of putting it in place."
Mr Rogers went on: "That logic would then apply to any question
of whether we should charge for FOI requests, in the level of
charge we would adopt and then how you would administer that."
Edward Hammond, of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, was concerned
that a "bureaucratic superstructure" could arise to
deal with fees.
The Information Commissioner agreed that charging schemes in each
public authority would "cost a lot to administer."
Jim Amos, of the Constitution Unit, told us that a study of the
use of fees for requests in Canada found that the public authorities
themselves sought to circumvent the legislation:
[...] if you paid a fee it was formally an FOI request.
However, many said, "Look, if you really want this as a formal
process, give us the fee; otherwise just ask us and we will give
it to you informally", because there was so much administrative
work to handle the payment.
75. The Information Commissioner told us that
other action should be taken by public authorities to increase
their transparency and reduce the costs of freedom of information
before charging should be considered:
[...] before you ever get to the question of charging,
there is an issue for the ICO about publication schemes. We have
done a lot of work on the model publication scheme that public
authorities should be running for proactive disclosure and for
making clear on their websites where information can be found.
It is a bit rich to have public authorities saying, "We are
assailed by unreasonable freedom of information requests",
when they do not have an adequate publication scheme, they have
not got their act together in terms of records management and
have a rotten website and so on. There are things that you can
do before you ever get to charging.
The Commissioner also noted it was "part of
a public authority's job to be accountable and to be answerable,
and the Freedom of Information Act is the way they do it."
Edward Hammond said:
[...] with wider public information, if decisions
are being made in your name and public money is being spent in
your name and on your behalf, surely you should have a right to
understand how those decisions are being made. There is a cost
involvedof course there isbut that is the cost of
democracy. That is inherent in the fact that, hopefully, we have
a system where informed citizens are able to make choicescertainly
in the future as public services arguably become more marketisedabout
the way that services are provided to them through having access
to a freedom of information inquiry.
Alex Skene, of the website WhatDoTheyKnow, also had
concerns about the impact of fees on transparency:
You will have to rely on people such as the regular
scrutineers of public bodies to ensure that money is being spent
in the right way. There may be less transparency. Wirral Borough
Council said today that it does not want charges because it will
not stop cover-ups but will stop them being made public; when
something has gone wrong, the council will be able to stop the
local populace finding out what is going on.
The York Newspaper agreed: "It is our view that
the FOIA was a long-overdue recognition of the public's inherent
ownership of public information, and of its right to see that
information free of charge [...]"
FEES FOR REQUESTS FROM WHICH THE
REQUESTOR WILL COMMERCIALLY BENEFIT
76. Other witnesses suggested that fees which
targeted certain types of requestor such as journalists and businesses
looking to benefit commercially from the information they receive
would tackle the issue of volume while preserving the right to
access information for the general public. Roger Gough, Councillor
for Kent County Council, expressed limited support for a "nominal"
charge for requests, as long as it was "hand in hand with
the wider transparency agenda" but was more strongly in favour
of charging specific users of the Act who expected to benefit
commercially from the information they were given.
Sue Slipman told us that while "there are some strong arguments
for charging [...] I do not think we would want genuine individuals
and members of the public getting caught up in it if there is
a way to avoid that."
While it did not support the introduction of fees, Equanomics
suggested that "if there is a decision to introduce fees,
we believe that there should be a general waiver of any fees for
charities, individuals and VCS organisations. We also believe
that newspapers have often shone a light on public affairs and
should not, as a matter of principle, be charged where there is
a public interest."
77. The difficulty with charging certain types
of requestor is that the freedom of information regime is based
on 'requestor blindness'; all applicants have the same rights
to receive information, regardless of who they are or the purposes
for which they want it.
The Information Commissioner summarised the difficulties as follows:
The imposition of charges does not really get us
anywhere. The experience in the Republic of Ireland was that it
had a devastating effect initially because of the number of requests
being made, both good and bad. You may want to dissuade cranks,
but there are lots of rich cranks.
Policing a system in which requestors are required
to provide some form of identification would therefore be both
difficult and expensive.
78. An alternative mechanism, suggested by Leeds
City Council, was that:
[...] the appropriate limit of £450 specified
by the Regulations mentioned above should not stand in isolation
from the number of requests a public authority receives, and that
this limit should be linked in some way to the volume of requests
received, possibly with a limit by individual applicant or by
The Campaign for Freedom of Information noted that
this suggestion was investigated as a possibility by the then
Government in 2006:
For example, one of the proposals was to allow the
aggregation of all requests to an authority by the same individual
or organisation within a 60 day period, regardless of their nature.
(Currently, only requests which relate to the same or similar
information can be aggregated). The proposal would have meant
that a local newspaper might be able to make just one or two requests
a quarter to a local authority, and having used its quota up on,
say, a child abuse issue would be unable to seek information about
other questions relating to education, road safety or housing
until the next quarter. A national newspaper or broadcasting organisation
might reach the cost limit with a single request to the Home Office
about immigration and then be unable to submit further requests
to it even on an entirely different issue such as passport controls,
drugs policy, policing or animal experimentation.
The government later published more details of how
the new aggregation provision might work, proposing that authorities
should be more ready to aggregate requests made by an individual
for commercial "or professional purposes" than for other
reasons. We assume that requests by doctors' organisations concerned
at the impact of NHS reforms, or campaign groups concerned with
issues of public interest, would thus have been particular targets
for the new measures.
79. The question of who Parliament envisaged
the Act being used by is considered above at paragraphs 44 and
CHARGING MEDIA COMPANIES
80. We asked witnesses whether a fee 'at source',
for example on all media companies, to be collected and distributed
by the Information Commissioner to assist public authorities in
funding their FOI regimes, would be feasible. The Commissioner
noted that such a system would be akin to a "stamp tax."
As well as being politically unpopular this proposal might create
a perverse incentive for media companies to maximise the number
of requests made in order to feel they had their 'money's worth'.
81. The Act operates on the
basis of requester blindness. As a result developing a way to
charge requesters who commercially benefit from the information
they receive from public authorities is difficult, if not impossible.
Any requirement that requestors identify themselves could easily
be circumvented by requestors using the name of a friend, family
member or other person. Attempts to police such a system, either
by public authorities or the Information Commissioner, would be
expensive and likely to have a limited effect.
82. It must also be recognised
that the focus of the Act is whether the disclosure of information
is justified, not who is asking for that information. If the statutory
scheme deems it right that data should be released then it is
irrelevant who is asking for publication; release of such information
is to all, not just the individual requestor. Nevertheless it
can be argued that someone seeking to exercise freedom of information
rights should be willing for the fact they have requested such
information to be in the public domain; we therefore recommend
that where the information released from FOI requests is published
in a disclosure log, the name of the requestor should be published
FEES FOR ALL REQUESTS - THE IRISH
83. When implemented in 1998, the Irish freedom
of information regime did not charge for requests.
In 2003, the regime was amended to allow public authorities to
refuse a request unless a fee was paid.
Fees are currently set
at 10 for a request for information, 25 for an internal
review and 50 for an appeal to the Irish Information Commissioner.
The 2004 Annual Report of the Irish Information Commissioner's
Office showed a 32% drop in requests for information.
The actual drop in requests equivalent to the English freedom
of information request was, however, around 50%, because the number
of requests overall included those for personal information, equivalent
to Data Protection Act requests in England and Wales, for which
a fee was not introduced. The number of requests was relatively
static in 2006 and 2007,
the year in which the Irish Information Commissioner concluded
in her Annual Report that "the introduction of fees has acted
as a major obstacle to the use of the Freedom of Information Act."
Since 2007 the number of requests climbed to a peak of 4,905 in
2009, compared to 7,601in 2003,
but fell back to 3,936 in 2011.
The Irish Information Commissioner, who was not consulted on the
introduction of fees, said in a speech that fees were "a
major obstacle to the use of the FOI Act" which "seems
to suggest that the people are seen as adversaries and nothing
more than lip-service is being paid to the principles of open,
fair and accountable government."
84. The numbers of requests made recorded by
the Irish Information Commissioner contain underlying trends.
Dr Ben Worthy, of the UCL Constitution Unit, told us, perhaps
surprisingly, that media and commercial requestors in Ireland
were the groups most dissuaded from putting in requests by the
introduction of fees: "officials seemed to believe that fees
had an effect on two particular groupsthe media and businesses."
The Irish Information Commissioner has made similar findings in
her annual reports.
It is unclear why this might be, however, a better understanding
of the system by those classes of requestors may have been a significant
factor as Dr Worthy found that:
after only a few interviews that one of the difficulties
with fees in any FOI system [...] is that there are ways round
it. A number of Irish FOI officials to whom I spoke found that
when fees were introduced they would get 10 questions in one request,
so the statistics may not tell the whole story.
85. While we recognise that
there is an economic argument in favour of the freedom of information
regime being significantly or wholly self-funding, fees at a level
high enough to recoup costs would deter requests with a strong
public interest and would defeat the purposes of the Act, while
fees introduced for commercial and media organisations could be
86. Any future reconsideration
of the economic argument for charging would need significantly
better data on the number of requests made under the Act and the
costs incurred in responding to them.
Lessons to be learnt from local
87. Research by the Constitution Unit on the
freedom of information regime in local government found that an
increase in the number of requests had not led to an equivalent
increase in costs, in fact the overall price of the regime had
decreased. The Unit's findings were as follows:
Table 1: Time
and cost of FOI from 2007 to 2010
||Estimated number of requests
||Average hours per request
||Total estimated cost of FOI to English local authorities (millions)
Data source: University College London, Department
of Political Science, The Constitution Unit
The table relates specifically to local authorities
in England and summarises request numbers, average hours spent
per request and cost, using £25/hour, as in the Fees Regulations.
88. Dr Jim Amos of the Constitution Unit, who
led on the research, told us that a significant cost driver for
public authorities (specifically local government) was the "burden"
of requests, in other words their complexity, rather than the
actual numbers. The best-performing local authorities took between
one and six hours for each request whereas others took over 10
hours. Dr Amos
told us that, when collating the research for the study, he noted
two councils estimated their average response time as 2 hours
and 50 hours respectively. He said he:
[...]thought that was ridiculous, so I rang the FOI
officer in both cases. I can comprehend why the two hours was
only two hours; it was an experienced person who obviously had
the confidence of the senior people, who would look at the request,
go and see the appropriate senior officer and, yes or no, decide
quickly. The other was in a very large council, with a junior
person dealing with it, who would have to send it with an advice
note to someone above; it would have to go up two levels before
it could go across to another organisation, and I could well understand
how that would be 50 hours. Bureaucracy and the cost-effectiveness
with which the exercise is managed matters a tremendous amount.
89. Dr Amos concluded that an efficient cost-effective
freedom of information regime was one where "positive leadership
[was] combined with good systems, staff and organisation".
Edward Hammond thought that:
Corporate ownership of the process is absolutely
crucial. Corporate ownership is the first step towards developing
a genuine cultural understanding about the benefits of transparency.
The more that senior officers and senior members are involved
directly in understanding the general spread of requests and how
they workand sometimes being actively involved in the process
itselfthe better the regime has the potential to work.
If it is parcelled off to junior officers who are sitting apart
from the council, it is more likely that the council will perceive
it as a compliance issue and therefore as a burden.
Roger Gough agreed, observing that the involvement
of both senior officers and senior members in a freedom of information
scheme "gives it the right degree of impetus and doesn't
make it an odd little area off on its own."
He told us Kent County Council had sought to: "encourage
our senior directors at least to take responsibility for the timing
of getting stuff back to the central Freedom of Information Unit.
We think there should be ownership of that by the most senior
officers to ensure that it happens. Inevitably, you will have
people of varying rank dealing with the actual mechanics of the
request, but often it cannot be more junior staff because you
need somebody who has the right picture of what is needed."
More broadly, other witnesses agreed that leadership was crucial.
Paul Gibbons identified "a lack of leadership in the public
sector championing FOI."
Mr Gibbons told us that "cynicism" about the value of
openness and transparency was a "significant limit"
on the benefits and effectiveness of the Act.
90. Evidence from our witnesses
suggests that reducing the cost of freedom of information can
be achieved if the way public authorities deal with requests is
well-thought through. This requires leadership and focus by senior
members of public organisations. Complaints about the cost of
freedom of information 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.
99 Ev 126 Back
Anna Colquhoun,The Cost of Freedom of Information, Constitution
Unit, University College London, December 2010, http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/foi/countries/cost-of-foi.pdf Back
Ibid, p3 Back
Frontier Economics, Independent Review of the impact of the
Freedom of Information Act, a report prepared for the Department
for Constitutional Affairs, October 2006 http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/%2B/http:/www.dca.gov.uk/foi/reference/foi-independent-review.pdf Back
Anna Colquhoun, The Cost of Freedom of Information,
Constitution Unit, University College London, December 2010 Back
Ev 169 Back
Q 75 Back
Q 139 Back
Qq 156, 155 Back
Q 21 Back
Q 22 Back
See Ev w166 Back
See Ev w131 Back
See Ev w80 Back
Q 250 Back
Q 145 Back
Ev 126 Back
Section 12(1) FOIA Back
Regulation 3(2) and 3(3) Back
Regulation 4(4) Back
Section 9 FOIA and Regulation 6 of the Fees Regulations Back
Regulation 4(3) Back
Chief Constable of South Yorkshire v Information Commissioner
 EWHC 44 (Admin) Back
Memo, p50 Back
Ev w39 Back
Ministry of Justice, Freedom of Information Act 2000 -
Statistics on implementation in central government 2011 Annual
and Q4: October - December 2011, p43, (April 2012). Figures
included requests under the Environmental Information Regulations. Back
Memo, p48 Back
Q 10 Back
Q 7 Back
Ev w47 Back
Frontier Economics, Independent Review of the impact of the
Freedom of Information Act, a report prepared for the Department
for Constitutional Affairs, October 2006 Back
Memo, pp 51-52 Back
Ev 115 Back
Ev 146 Back
Ev w217 Back
Ministry of Justice, Freedom of Information Act 2000 - Statistics
on implementation in central government 2011 Annual and Q4: October-December
2011 ( April 2012) p43. Figures included requests under the
Environmental Information Regulations. Back
Ibid, p23 (Table 3) Back
The Constitution Unit, FOIA 2000 and local government
in 2010: The experience of local authorities in England, (November
Ev 110 Back
Q 77 Back
Q 78 Back
Ev w34 Back
Q 309 Back
Ev 120 Back
Q 406 Back
Anna Colquhoun, The Cost of Freedom of Information,
Constitution Unit, University College London, December 2010, p3 Back
Ibid, p4 Back
Anna Colquhoun, The Cost of Freedom of Information,
Constitution Unit, University College London, December 2010, p5 Back
Q 447 Back
Ev 146 Back
Q 461 Back
Q 462 Back
For example the majority of local authorities never charge
a fee, see Memo, p 93. Back
Q 363 Back
Q 384 Back
Q 167 Back
Q 168 Back
Q 176 Back
Ev w56 Back
Ev 156 Back
Ev 156 Back
Ev w217 Back
Q 420 Back
Q 425 Back
Q 227 Back
Q 75 Back
Q 227 Back
Q 230 Back
Q 424 Back
Q 18 Back
Ev w166 Back
Q 417 Back
Q 296 Back
Ev w206 Back
Lord Falconer, HL Deb, 17 Oct 2000, col 921 Back
Q 227 Back
Ev 146 Back
Ev w21 Back
Q 227 Back
See generally Freedom of Information Act 1997 Back
Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003, s30, now section
47(6A) Freedom of Information Act 1997 Back
Originally 15, 75 and 150 respectively. Back
See http://www.oic.gov.ie/en/MakeanFOIRequest/Fees/ Back
Office of the Information Commissioner, Annual Report 2004,
p 5 http://www.oic.gov.ie/en/Publications/AnnualReports/2004/File,519,en.pdf
2005 was an anomalous year because of the high number of personal
requests made following the revelation of ill-treatment in Ireland's
industrial schools. See IOICO's Annual Reports pg 9 and 11 respectively. Back
Ibid, p11 Back
See Irish Information Commissioner's Office annual reports
for the relevant years http://www.oic.gov.ie/en/Publications/AnnualReports/.
Irish Information Commissioner's Annual Report (2011) Back
Ev w217 Back
Q 75 Back
Gabrielle Bourke, Jim Amos, Ben Worthy, Jennifer Katzaros, FOIA
2000 and local government in 2010: The experience of local authorities
in England, November 2011, The Constitution Unit, table 21,
Ev 169 Back
Q 75 Back
Q 90 Back
Ev 169 Back
Q 413 Back
Q 413 Back
Ev w47 Back