Thursday, January 05, 2006

One year on: the Freedom of Information Act

There was an article recently on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It provides as follows:

Writing in the Guardian on the first anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act, Lord Falconer, the constitutional affairs secretary, signals his intention to end what ministers regard as abuses of a system that is generally working well.

His move will anger the tabloid press and cause concern among freedom of information campaigners suspicious that wider restrictions will be imposed under the cover of protecting individuals. Lord Falconer writes: "Freedom of information is about giving power to the people, not about declaring open season for the wilder fevers of journalistic wish lists".

One awaits to see what proposals arise to amend the FOIA. However, one main concern is the continued backlog of complaints arising from the FOIA and are dealt with by the Information Commissioner. In a special report on the FOIA, it found that 'the commissioner has so far received more than 2,200 complaints, mainly about Whitehall and local councils. Of these, he has yet to deliver a verdict on 1,300 of them. His staff are only now starting to consider complaints which were submitted to his office in May.' How can these problems be remedied? More staffing? Staffing is only one part of the solution. According to the same report, what is being is considered is as follows:

The government is now reviewing at least two aspects of the act. The first is the issue of fees that can be charged by government bodies to members of the public when they make requests to recover the costs of, for example, finding and photocopying documents. So far, the public has been charged very little. However charging would almost certainly reduce the number of requests made.

Secondly, Charles Falconer, the constitutional affairs secretary responsible for the act, is looking to clamp down on what he believes are "wilder" and irresponsible requests, particularly from the tabloid press. He cited as examples requests for the number of windows at the department for education and skills, and the amount of money that departments spend on toilet paper.

Although there are concerns about potential misuse arising from the FOIA, it is questionable whether the proposed changes has the counter-effect of defeating the very purpose of the FOIA - transparency, accountability etc. We await (with bated breath). For more information about the FOIA, see the DCA website.

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