FOI – A New Exemption?

In a talk given to a “Solicitors in Local Government” weekend school the Deputy Information Commissioner Graham Smith was reported to have made some interesting observations relating to the post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). He was said by UKAuthority.com to have told his audience that

local government’s concerns about freedom of information are not being heard by the Commons Justice Committee as it scrutinises the Freedom of Information Act. ‘There’s no strong voice from local government in this process before the justice committee.’

Perhaps more importantly, he was also said, by the Law Society Gazette, to have warned that

the volume of FoI requests would continue to increase. Ironically, one cause was the government’s transparency agenda: the requirement to publish all items of spending over £500 ‘just puts things out there that cause people to ask questions’, he said. ‘I can’t see that changing.’

‘The clear challenge is that the number of requests is going to go up and up, often building on information that is already in the public domain.’

and perhaps most interesting of all that

the information commissioner would support moves to introduce a specific exemption for frivolous requests

Two observations can or should be made: first, these are second-hand reports of his speech – we are not aware that it has been published anywhere, or that any formal statement has been made by his office on this subject; second, FOIA already has an exemption at section 14(1), which allows public authorities not to comply with a request that is “vexatious” and, if it was correctly reported, it is interesting that Smith’s apparent nod towards a possible new exemption was made the weekend after the Information Tribunal gave a very strong  judgment which criticised the makers of “vexatious requests” and appeared to advocate a broad interpretation of “vexatiousness”

Abuse of the right to information under s.1 of FOIA is the most dangerous enemy of the continuing exercise of that right for legitimate purposes. It damages FOIA and the vital rights that it enacted in the public perception. In our view, the ICO and the Tribunal should have no hesitation in upholding public authorities which invoke s.14(1) in answer to grossly excessive or ill – intentioned requests

Whether, ultimately, Parliament decides to enact a new, or amended, exemption for “frivolous requests”, remains to be seen, but it seems that the Information Tribunal (or at least this specific tribunal) is perhaps less convinced of a need for change than the ICO.

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3 thoughts on “FOI – A New Exemption?

  1. Jonathan Jackson says:

    The amount of time spent (and therefore cost) to complete FOI requests is ridiculous. I wish the Taxpayers allience and BigBrother watch would disclose how many similar FOI requests they have made to every council so we could gauge how much it has cost and whether its VFM.

    As well as increasing cost the applicant should also have to state why they want the info.

    • Why don’t we try to quantify the benefits of FOI as well as the costs. Each MP and Senior Civil Servant should have to fill in an annual declaration detailing (a) how much they would have overstated their expenses claims by had it not been for the existence of FOI and the fear of getting caught and (b) how much more public money they would have wasted had it not been for the accountability that FOI brings.

  2. Ed Hammond says:

    Why is it so expensive? Is it because authorities are hopeless at information management, or that they are desperately trying to thinking of credible reasons to argue for an exemption? Fact of the matter is, the more information you make public as a matter of course, the less you have to spend servicing FOI requests. And, of course, servicing FOI requests is a part of the democratic process, so you might as well complain that elections are too expensive.

    The views of local government may not be well represented, but from what I understand only three or four councils bothered to submit responses to the call for evidence earlier this year.

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