When coming clean costs too much

The notion that access to information is a fundamental civil right lay behind the long campaign for a British Freedom of Information Act. But since it came into force in 2005, the FOIA has not always been treated with reverence, says the Economist.

For example:

  • One request made was for the e-mail addresses of all the unmarried policemen in Hampshire.

  • Another wanted the number of sex acts perpetrated on Welsh sheep in 2003.

  • Overall, around 120,000 requests are filed under the act every year, with private citizens making 60 per cent.

    The government is using such frivolous applications as part of the rationale for making it harder to get information. Requests can already be refused if they cost more than £600 ($1,170), including the time spent hunting for files, but now the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) wants to make it more difficult:

  • Ministers now want to add the time spent pondering whether to publish the information.

  • They also want to treat separate requests from organisations as a single submission for the purpose of working out costs.

  • Such measures are needed, they say, both to cut costs and to discourage those who are more interested in frivolity than good governance.

    But while officials cite rising costs, others see a darker motive, says the Economist. Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, says that the measures will cut down on precisely the complicated and time-consuming requests that prove most embarrassing for ministers. What's more, the savings are estimated to be around £12 million ($23.4 million) a year; a sum barely perceptible to a government that expects to get through £555 billion ($1.08 trillion) of taxpayers' money this year.

    Source: Editorial, Every expense spared: The government thinks coming clean costs too much, Economist, December 19, 2006.

    For text (subscription required): http://www.economist.com/world/britain/displaystory.cfm?story_id=E1_RQVJVSQ

    For more on International Issues: http://www.ncpa.org/sub/dpd/index.php?Article_Category=26

    Policy Bulletin/ 16 January 2007
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