The Justice minister laid out plans to reduce the amount of money spent answering Freedom of Information requests by public authorities yesterday.
Speaking at a poorly attended debate on the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act in Westminster Hall Helen Grant outlined the plans to modify the act after it was scrutinised by a government committee.
Campaigners have criticised the proposals saying they could limit the number of requests that are responded to as well as having an impact on journalists’ ability to hold officials to account.
It was also announced that the government veto on requests, which has been used by officials to block information, such as Prince Charles’ lobbying of ministers from being disclosed, is to be reviewed.
The FOI act allows anyone to request information from a public authority, such as a local council, government department or school, as along as requests are not subject to an exemption, or go over a cost limit.
At present staff can reject requests which breach a cost limit for providing the information set out by the act, £600 for central government and £450 of other public authorities. During 2011 central government received 47,000 FOI requests, which cost £8.5million in staff time.
Miss Grant said the “burdens” placed on authorities who have to respond to requests under the act need to be reduced.
“This is especially important in the current challenging and very difficult financial climate and at a time when more Freedom of Information requests than ever before are being received,” she said.
One option the government is considering blocking ‘industrial requests’ that are made by a person or group of people to the same authority. The suggestion has raised fears with campaigners that this may limit a local newspapers’ ability to hold an authority to account.
“A single request about school exam results might be enough to reach the cost limit. Thereafter the whole newspaper – not just the individual journalist – might be barred from making any further FOI requests to the authority for the next quarter, even on different issues such as child abuse, road safety or library closures” said Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information.
The government says this will only have an impact on a small number of requests made but Sir Alan Beith, the chair of the justice committee, which scrutinised the act, said it could affect a high number of requests.
“We could be talking about a over a 1,000 requests here and we are concerned about it, particularly about its potential impact on local newspapers. The local newspaper may want to follow up stories relating to a different number of different local services, education, highways, social services, it could very quickly find that it’s falling foul of this aggregation,” he said.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information has also warned that the intention to introduce “thinking time” of civil servants responding to a request would not allow complex requests to be answered.
Miss Grant defended to idea to introduce the time taken to consider requests in the cost limits of the act: “We recognise the practical difficulties of including such tasks, but we do think it’s worst looking at to see what might be done.”
Despite the concerns, the Justice minister said FOI had been a success and the government is committed to greater transparency, having published more than 9,000 data sets in recent years. She also told MPs that the number of authorities who were covered by the act was going to be increased in coming years and could include more than 2,000 housing associations.
The ministerial veto, which has been used by ministers six times in the eight years to block information from being released, will also be reviewed.
At the end of last year the government used the veto to stop 27 letters written to ministers by Prince Charles being released as they ruled it could damage his ability to perform his duties as a future king. Seven government departments had lost an information tribunal over the publication of the letters before the attorney general Dominic Grieve stepped in to issue the veto.
Sir Alan said that any minister who is intending to use the veto will come under criticism and his committee recommended that clear advice and guidance should be provided to civil servants when they are considering the using the ministerial veto.
The advice was taken onboard by the government who could change the rules around the use of the veto.
“We’ve announced our intention to review and as appropriate revise the government’s published policy on the use of the veto, this policy is currently designed to assist on where use of the veto is consider in respect of information which relates to cabinet collective responsibility,” said Miss Grant.
But she admitted that there is no limitation in the act, which stops the veto being used for other information, deemed to be sensitive.
The government hope to bring forward secondary legislation during the next two years to implement the changes which it decides upon after consultation further on the issues.