Freedom of Information news, Issue 02

  1. Government publishes FOI charging regulations
  2. MPs fear that public bodies are not ready for FOIA
  3. New FOI training course launched

1. Government publishes FOI charging regulations

On December 9th, the Department of Constitutional Affairs laid its fees regulations for the Freedom of Information Act before Parliament. According to the proposed regulations, charges for access to most information will be restricted to the costs of printing, photocopying and postage.

Public bodies will, however, be able to refuse access to information if retrieval costs are higher than £450. This has been estimated to require approximately two and half days work. For central government, the limit will be £600, which would involve three and a half days work.

Public authorities are permitted to charge a higher fee if the cost of providing the information goes over the maximum limit. If the costs are estimated to be too high, authorities should get in touch with applicants to find out whether they are able to modify the request to include less detail. If individuals consider the proposed fees too high, they can appeal to the Information Commissioner.

Experts have criticised the fact that public authorities can decline certain requests on the basis of cost, even where individuals are willing to meet these costs. According to Dai Davis, solicitor at Nabarro Nathanson, the fees regulations could be used by public bodies to avoid meeting access requests. "The likely level of charges for the provision of information," he said, "means that local authorities will be perfectly entitled to decline requests based on the time and costs any such requests might entail."

Similarly, a spokesman for the Campaign for the Freedom of Information said: "Although we are generally pleased with the fees regulations, we are concerned that once the fee limit has been reached, it is purely at the public bodies’ discretion whether they will comply with the request or not."

Public bodies will need to establish a formula to estimate the costs of compliance with access requests. Factors to be taken into account include the costs associated with searching for the information, retrieval, and delivery to applicants. The Department of Constitutional Affairs recommends that, in most cases, public authorities provide the information free of charge. Some public authorities have already set a nominal fee of £20 to cover their administration costs and postage.

The Department of Constitutional Affairs has published Guidance Notes on the fees structure. Click here for more information.

2. MPs fear that public bodies are not ready for FOIA

MPs have voiced concerns that public sector bodies are not ready for the Freedom of Information Act which enters into force on 1st January. The report by the House of Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee on FOI implementation discovered a lack of central guidance and advice. "[The] DCA's failure to provide early guidance on technical matters and gaps in its leadership on FOI have emphasised the problems to be overcome rather than the benefits of FOI," said the report.

The Committee expressed further concern that public bodies would not be able to meet the number of requests for access to information come January. "We are not confident that adequate preparations have been made to ensure that this will be achieved," it said.

Click here for a copy of the report.

3. New FOI training course launched

The British Computer Society has launched a new qualification for staff who handle Freedom of Information compliance. The ISEB certificate course covers a range of compliance areas including processing and monitoring requests for information, applying exemptions and carrying out public interest tests. Courses are already being offered by law firm Masons.

Click here for more information about the course.

Copyright Privacy Laws & Business 2004