Freedom of Information

'Freedom of information' is an act

3 August 2006

By Malcolm Siret

Following the British government's decision to take legal action against Craig Murray for publicising information obtained using the Freedom of Information Act (the documents disclosed are under the Crown's copyright laws) it is now becoming apparent that this ‘free’ information is in fact quite expensive, and therefore it may be necessary to introduce a charge for dealing with these requests - or else they might just refuse them altogether.

Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information believes that the government is simply trying to make it harder for ordinary citizens to obtain information via these means; by "denying it on the grounds of expense" – this threatens to render the 'ACT' useless, as governing bodies may choose to reject requests for information that they prefer remain concealed.

The concerns over costs were made apparent following the "vexatious" influx of requests received by local authorities over the past year from one individual who claimed to be a freelance journalist. The 'anonymous' man has made 412 requests to the Ministry of Defence, 347 to the police, and 22 to the Cabinet Office in the course of just one year, and is described by the information commissioner Richard Thomas as "obsessive and manifestly unreasonable" in his "harassing [of] the public authorities".

A leaked cabinet document suggests that authorities take into account the time officials spend "considering" whether or not to release information on top of the time spent looking for it. This makes it more likely that requests be refused on cost grounds, even if the retrieval of this information is in itself within budget.

If the 'tracking down' of this information is so time-consuming and costly that it is becoming difficult to uphold, surely concentration should then be placed on ways of improving / updating the system in order to make this information more accessible to local authorities or governing bodies, and in turn more accessible to the public. Simply reducing the amount of information disclosed (departments can refuse to answer requests if costs exceed £450-£600) is not the way forward.

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