The use of FOI requests?

We often hear the expression used in politics about being open and transparent, it is usually preceded by the words moving forwards.

So what does this mean:- moving forward we will be open and transparent

it actually implies that currently we are not open or transparent but somehow operating in the dark and behind closed doors .

The explosion of “print culture” in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries was linked to a revolution of thought, which ultimately led to the American and French revolutions.

During and following these government upheavals, rights to free speech, expression, assembly, and press were written into law in many countries of western Europe and the U.S. These fundamental rights formed the foundation for what was considered accountable governance at the time, and which today still serve as the (often forgotten) building blocks to our modern notions of open government.

In the 1950s and 60s, a wave of government reforms swept the western world, including widespread adoption of open meetings and public records, freedom of information laws. These laws are often referred to as “sunshine” laws and were passed with the intent of fostering a transparent, accessible, and accountable government culture.

Such laws are now commonplace; On the 19th Sept 2014 Paraguay became the 100th nation to pass FOI law providing a legal process by which citizens may request government-held information at little or no cost.

So…. where are we now?

Now, you can ask for information as long as finding it does not cost more than £600 for a government department, or £450 for another public body.

But government has now suggested either lowering that limit or including extra items in that cost, including time spent on “considering and redacting” any releases.

At the moment, officials are asked to estimate how much time it would take to find documents. If the estimate is that it could cost more than a certain limit, they go no further. A common complaint being that they often inflate these costs so they can refuse releases.

Now imagine how much worse that would be if they were also asked to add in how much time they expect to spend “thinking” about a request and the amount of time they might need to spend blacking out contentious information as proposed by Michael Gove

It would be an open invitation to refuse requests at will.

Now …Appeals are currently free.

But The Ministry of Justice has proposed that there should be a £100 charge for appealing to the  First-tier Tribunal against an Information Commissioner decision.- An oral hearing will cost an additional £500.

The introduction of fees for Employment Tribunal appeals, for example……against unfair dismissal,

has led to a massive fall in the numbers of cases, down by 2/3 of their previous level,

The FOI tribunal charges are likely to lead to a collapse in the number of appeals being made by requesters.

whilst Authorities, on the other hand, will have no difficulty challenging decisions that they don’t like. and you and I will still have to request (and possibly easily be denied)  information that should be freely available to all in the public domain.

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