2005-10-04

Money: The Cost of Free Information

New charges could be levied on Scots seeking documents under freedom of information legislation, 'The Scottish Executive' has revealed. Opposition parties last night condemned the move, unveiled by The Minister for Parliamentary Business, Ms.Margaret Curran... The Minister for Parliamentary Business told a conference looking at the first year of 'The Freedom of Information Act' that 'The Scottish Executive' was conducting a 'mini-review' of the way the system has worked. She added:
'While we can't judge the overall success of FOI on the first few months, we can use the experience to look at whether there are ways we can improve things. 'It is already clear that some lessons could be learned, for example, on the operation of the fee structure and what bodies are covered by the act.'
Under the current system, the first 100_GBP worth of work on obtaining the information is free to the applicant. There is a 10 per cent additional charge up to 600_GBP and after that the bodies can charge the full amount for their efforts or refuse the request. In practice, however, most bodies -- including 'The Scottish Executive', health boards and local government -- do not levy the charge until the cost goes above 600_GBP. Last night a Spokesman for The Minister for Parliamentary Business said the minister had not ruled out a flat rate charge for all freedom of information requests, though that was unlikely as it might deter members of the public. However, ministers are looking seriously at the possibility of 'aggregating' the costs of FOI requests from one individual to any public body. Adding up the costs of separate requests made to the same body would soon mean that the 600_GBP limit was reached. The Minister for Parliamentary Business's targets are understood to include a minority of journalists and legal firms who have made hundreds of requests for information which have taken up hundreds of hours of civil service time to answer. However, there are fears that she may end up following the example of the Irish government over charges: After the department of finance in Dublin brought in a flat 10_GBP charge for all information requests and a 100_GBP charge for appeals, the number of freedom of information requests dropped by almost a third. There were a total of 12_597 applications in 2004, compared to 18_443 in 2003. The Minister for Parliamentary Business also revealed that she was considering lifting restrictions on the release of information on 'The G8 summit'. Certain details on the 2005-07 event at 'Gleneagles Hotel' in Perthshire -- understood to be information on the movements of world leaders like Mr.George Bush Junior -- have been withheld from publication under freedom of information laws in the interests of national security. Although 10_000 bodies are covered by 'The Freedom of Information Act', 'The Scottish Executive' is also considering whether more should be included. Private prisons and housing associations could be included. The Minister for Parliamentary Business said that ministers now felt it was appropriate to review the first few months of FOI, and she promised full consultation on 'The Scottish Executive's' plans. Mr.Kenny Macaskill, the Scottish National Party's spokesman on justice, said:
'More charges would negate the whole intention of "The Freedom of Information Act".
'If you make the cost of applications unaffordable you rule out access to information to all but the fortunate few.
'This is not what the parliament intended and the Executive must not go down this road.'
A spokesman for the Green Party, which is fighting an attempt by the national health service to overturn a ruling by Mr.Kevin Dunion, Scotland's information commissioner, that statistics on leukaemia 'clusters' should be published, said:
'It would be worrying if moves were being made to increase costs.'
'Scots may face rise in cost of digging out information', Peter macmahon, The Scotsman, 2005-10-04, Tu Links: Scottish Information Commissioner UK Information Commissioner Scottish Executive, Freedom of Information Scottish Executive - disclosure log Scottish Parliament - disclosure log Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland Scottish Freedom of Information blog UK Freedom of Information blog

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