Justice secretary wants to make FOI requests easier to turn down
Justice Secretary Michael Gove is considering making it easier for government officials to turn down Freedom of Information requests.
A move to restrict the information accessible by the public would be a considerable blow to government transparency.
According to the Financial Times, Gove is considering introducing more “thinking time” to be made available to officials to calculate how much time, and money, an FOI response will take.
The upper limit for the expense an FOI can clock-up is £450 for public bodies, and up to £600 for FOI requests to the government. If an FOI is particularly complex, the hours spent retrieving the information may push it above the boundary.
Meanwhile, another method being considered to reduce accessibility is to introduce ministerial vetos on the publication of certain documents.
However, this tactic failed to prevent the publication of the so-called “Black Spider Memos” – Prince Charles’s letters lobbying the Labour government over a range of issues.
Speaking to the FT, Maurice Frankel, director of the UK Campaign for Freedom of Information, said that freedom of information was “coming under a two-pronged attack”.
He added: “Many of the proposals… could have had severe consequences for the right to know.”
The plans also undermine David Cameron’s 2011 claim that he wanted to create a “new era of transparency in government”.
If Gove’s proposals go forward, then Cameron will preside over a new era of transparency in government – a less transparent one.
The Freedom of Information act was brought in by Tony Blair’s government in 2005, and gave the public the right to access government information.
There are restrictions to the information that can be obtained under the law: In addition to the cost limit, some information is subject to an absolute exemption, and some is subject to a “qualified” exemption in which a public interest test must be made.
The cost of responding to FOI requests stood at £31.6m in 2010, with civil servants spending 1.2 million hours on over 200,000 requests, according to a study by UCL.