A committee of MPs has attacked government moves to change the charging regime for freedom of information requests, saying ministers have not looked at the cost to the public of reduced access to information.
At present, public bodies are entitled to refuse requests made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) if their cost of providing the information exceeds a set threshold.
The Commons constitutional affairs committee hit out at government proposals that would allow public bodies to include a wider range of items, including the time spent considering the request, in the cost total and to aggregate a wider range of separate requests.
Both these measures would see more requests pass the cost threshold and be refused.
But the MPs said there was “no evidence” that the government had adequately reviewed whether the existing charging regime balanced public access rights with the needs of public authorities to deliver services effectively.
A report on the committee’s inquiry into the proposed changes says the MPs had “not heard sufficient evidence” from the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) to support the need for a radical change in charging arrangements.
It adds: “The cost-benefit analysis used to support the proposed new regime is insufficient. The costs to the public of reduced access to information are ignored, the additional costs of the proposed new regime are omitted and alternative ways of making information provision more efficient are not considered.”
The MPs also criticised the “poor quality of information presented in the cost-benefit analysis, in particular the lack of information about the benefits of FOI to the public”. They said this suggested “that little effort was made by the DCA to balance public access rights against the needs of public authorities to deliver services effectively”.
“We have not received any convincing evidence that the new regime would be sufficiently transparent and subject to adequate review,” the report adds.
The Ministry of Justice – successor to the DCA – should focus on improving compliance with the act, the MPs said.
They also urged that funding for the Information Commissioners Office – the watchdog that hears complaints relating to FOIA requests – should be increased and repeated calls for the commissioner to be made directly responsible and accountable to parliament.
The government is currently locked in battle with the commissioner over requests for the gateway reviews of major IT projects to be made public. The Office of Government Commerce, which carries out the reviews, has lodged a High Court appeal against a ruling by the Information Tribunal ordering it to release gateway reviews on the controversial ID cards scheme under the FOIA.