In July 2012, the Justice Select Committee published its report into post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Running to more than 100 pages, and considering submissions from a wide range of those who operate the Act, the report is broadly summarised in its first sentence:
“Freedom of Information has been a significant enhancement of our democracy and the Act is working well. “
The Committee largely resisted calls for FOI to be amended fundamentally. It did recommend that the Government should make some (many would say modest,) changes to the FOI regime. The Government has now published its official response to the Committee’s report. It is fair to say that the Government has rejected many of the report’s recommendations. Below is a brief analysis of the main recommendations of the Committee and how the Government has responded: (For another account see the SaveFOI Campaign’s latest blog post. )
1. A Change to the Costs Regime
Many of those that responded to the Committee’s call for evidence, had expressed concern about the sheer cost of dealing with FOI requests (although the basis of calculation of some of the figures seemed highly dubious). The Committee recommended that consideration be given to reducing the amount of time an authority need take in searching for and compiling information:
“We would suggest something in the region of two hours, taking the limit to 16 hours rather than 18, but anticipate the Government would want to carry out further work on how this would affect the number of requests rejected.”
However, the Committee rejected the suggestion that reading, consideration ND redaction time should also be taken into account when deciding whether the 18-hour limit has been reached. The Government doubts that much will be achieved through the reduction of the costs limit. It is though in favour of allowing additional factors to be taken into account in deciding whether the 18 hour limit has been reached:
“The Government does not share the assessment of the Committee that it is unfeasible to develop an objective and fair methodology for calculating the cost limit which includes further time spent dealing with information in response to a request. As such, the Government is minded to explore options for providing that time taken to consider and redact information can be included in reaching the cost limit.”
At present, according to the FOI Fees Regulations, costs of different FOI requests can be aggregated only where the requests relate to the same or similar information. The Government may change this to make it even easier to aggregate costs. At paragraph 19 of its response, it states:
“We will also look at addressing where one person or group of people’s use of FOIA to make unrelated requests to the same public authority is so frequent that it becomes inappropriately or disproportionately burdensome.”
2. New Research Exemption
Universities strongly argued before the Committee that there was insufficient protection for pre-publication research under FOI. The Committee took this on board and recommended that section 22 of the Act should be amended to give research carried out in England and Wales the same protection as in Scotland under FOISA.
The Government accepts this recommendation. It says in its response (at paragraph 48), that it is minded to introduce a dedicated exemption to cover pre publication research, which would be qualified and prejudice based. However this would be reviewed at a suitable point after introduction.
3. New Statutory Time Limits
At present where a public authority wishes to extend the 20 working day time limit to consider the public interest test, or is asked to undertake an internal review of a refusal to disclose, there is no further statutory time limit (although the ICO recommends that a further 20 working days is appropriate in most cases). The Committee recommended the 20 day extension be put into statute.
The Government has rejected this recommendation in part. Whilst it acknowledges the importance of internal reviews and consideration of the public interest test being done in a timely fashion, it does not believe that time limits should be enshrined in the Act itself. It believes that these matters are best dealt with through amendments to the S.45 Code of Practice.
4. Disclosure Logs and Names of Requestors
The Committee recommended that public authorities should be required to publish more information about their handling of FOI requests and meeting deadlines. The Government felt that this would be an additional burden on public authorities at any time of financial constraints.
Surprisingly the Committee also recommended that where the information released from FOI requests is published in a disclosure log, the name of the requestor should be published alongside it. The Government has rejected this recommendation on the basis that, amongst other things, it would risk unfair disclosure of personal data and so breach the Data Protection Act 1998.
5. Section 77 Prosecutions
The Committee recommended a change to the provisions of the Act dealing with the criminal offence of altering/erasing/concealing information. Currently this provision effectively requires the Information Commissioner to bring a prosecution within six months of the offence taking place. As often the Commissioner would not find out about an offence until well after this, the chances of bringing a prosecution have been very low. The Committee suggested (at paragraph 121):
“The summary only nature of the section 77 offence means that no one has been prosecuted for destroying or altering disclosable data, despite the Information Commissioner’s Office seeing evidence that such an offence has occurred. We recommend that section 77 be made an either way offence which will remove the limitation period from charging. We also recommend that, where such a charge is heard in the Crown Court, a higher fine than the current £5000 be available to the court. We believe these amendments to the Act will send a clear message to public bodies and individuals contemplating criminal action.”
The Government has rejected the idea of making the S.77 offence an either way offence and so attracting a higher fine. It proposes though that the 6 month window for prosecution should be triggered when the offence is discovered rather than when it occurs.
6. Fees for Tribunal Appeals
The Committee never considered the issue of charging fees for Tribunal appeals (which are free at present although the Tribunal has a discretion to award costs to either party). Thishas not stopped the Government (at paragraph 24)considering the idea:
“…the Government is keen explore the potential for users to contribute more towards the costs of tribunals. Fees are already charged in some jurisdictions (for example, in the Immigration and Asylum tribunal) and we will examine the scope for extending this approach to other types of tribunal, including the Information tribunal.”
7. Extension of FOI
On the question of extending FOI to the private sector the Committee stated:
“We believe that contracts provide a more practical basis for applying FOI to outsourced services than partial designation of commercial companies under section 5 of the Act, although it may be necessary to use designation powers if contract provisions are not put in place and enforced. We recommend that the Information Commissioner monitors complaints and applications for guidance in this area to him from public authorities.”
The Government, in its response, states that it is continuing consultations with various public sector sector bodies with a view to adding them to the list of public authorities under FOI. These include the LGA, harbor authorities and the NHS Confederation. It is also going to consult 2000 housing associations. Any additions to the list of public authorities will come into effect by Spring 2015. However, the following quote, from paragraph 56 of the Government’s response, will disappoint FOI campaigners and those who think that FOI should be extended to the private sector:
“The Government therefore does not intend, at this time, to legislate to extend FOIA obligations to contractors. In particular the Government is concerned about the potential impact on SMEs, the voluntary sector and social enterprises, but does not think that a minimum contract value threshold for formal inclusion should be adopted given that public interest does not always equate to the size of a contract.”