One of the political mysteries of 2007 is why ministers hastily withdrew their threat to curb requests under the Act. Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, thinks he knows why
It is customary at this time of year to look back over the past 12 months to re-evaluate key moments that have shaped the political landscape. In the field of information rights it is the battle to force the Government to withdraw plans to restrict its own legislation that stands out.
At the turn of the year, Government forces, led by Lord Falconer of Thoroton, then Lord Chancellor, appeared determined to press ahead with new rules that would stop the media and campaign groups from making costly and embarrassing requests for information. By mid-spring there was strong cross-party opposition to the plans but Falconer and his ministerial colleagues showed no appetite for compromise. But then Jack Straw, the new Justice Secretary, seemed to lose his will for the fight. By October the whole debate had been turned on its head, with Gordon Brown suggesting that Freedom of Information laws could be extended to cover some private firms.
New documents released under the Freedom of Information Act now provide a clearer understanding of why the Government got cold feet.
Responses to its own consultation paper published last year include submissions from FOI officers who show themselves to be less than enthusiastic about the idea of “blanket aggregation”, whereby a financial cap would be put on the amount of money that could be spent on complying with FOI requests made by individuals from within the same organisation.
For example, the Department of Health wrote: “We consider that it may not be reasonable to aggregate where the applicant is clearly acting as a conduit to a large organisation and refusal would lead to multiple non-related requests following from a myriad of requestors.” The department was also lukewarm on the question of introducing a “ready reckoner” to help calculate the amount of time taken by officials to consider a freedom of information request. It added:
DH considers that the Regulations are prescriptive enough but would welcome indicators or examples rather than a “ready reckoner” as part of the guidance. A “ready reckoner” could be overly rigid and not take account of the complexity of some documentation that may have to be examined carefully.
The Serious Fraud Office also had concerns: “The aggregation provision is potentially problematic,” its response stated.
It is proposed to aggregate requests made by a person or persons, who may be acting in concert for the purpose of calculating the appropriate limit. This will be difficult to implement. Anyone can submit a request via e-mail and it would be very difficult to assess whether different identities are being used or whether individuals are collaborating to acquire information.
Government agencies were even less enthusiastic. In its detailed response, Transport for London noted that the consultation paper did not present any evidence that “burdensome FOI requests are a significant or extensive problem outside of central government”.
TfL does not consider that it incurs unacceptable costs in responding to over 1,000 FOI requests a year, including a significant proportion that are complex. An alternative . . . might have been to develop proposals that would have implemented a revised fees regime for central government only.
And on the issue of aggregation it said: “We consider that the existing Fees Regulations are adequate in this regard and in general multiple unrelated requests from individual applicants, or different applicants in a single organisation, have not imposed an unacceptable burden on TfL.” Such unexpected opposition to its plans must have given the Government plenty of reason to beat a hasty retreat.