The cost of FOIA

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 ("FOIA") was introduced by Tony Blair's government and came into force on 1 January 2005.

In his memoirs Tony Blair remarked of FOIA:  "You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it."

Mr Blair is of the view that FOIA is not used by "the people" but by journalists, and that it is dangerous, as governments need to be able to discuss issues "with a reasonable level of confidentiality".

Mr Blair may be concerned that FOIA is predominately used by journalists and that it impedes good governance, but many scandals have been exposed by the media thanks to their FOIA requests such as MPs' expenses, carehome residents dying of thirst, and unlawful stop and search practices, to name a few.

But what about the cost?

A 2010 survey of local government by UCL's Constitution Unit estimated the cost of FOIA at £31.6m and that civil servants spent 1.2m hours responding to nearly 200,000 requests.

The Cabinet Office & Independent Commission of Freedom of Information, reported in March 2016.  The Report found that many public bodies, including local and parish councils, NHS Trusts and policing bodies felt that information requests are unduly burdensome, with several councils referring to increasing numbers of requests being a financial burden in the face of reducing budgets.

Liverpool City Council reported that it received 1,217 requests in 2010  increasing to 2,139 by 2014 - an increase of approximately 76%, and an increase in costs of approximately £150K per annum. During the same period the City Council's receipts from central Government fell by 58%, reportedly placing substantial pressures on the viability of the delivery of essential services for its residents.

Public bodies made a range of suggestions to the Commission as to how the burdens imposed under FOIA could be addressed. One common proposal that was put forward was the introduction of a fee for making a request. The Commission specifically sought evidence on whether a fee should be charged for making a request and noted that media organisations "were particularly concerned about the prospect of a fee being charged for those making a request under the Act."

The Commission concluded that it would not be appropriate to impose a request fee stating the following in their Report:

"While we do recognise that requests under the Act do impose a financial burden on hard-pressed public authorities, in our view this is justified by the general public interest in accountability and transparency of public bodies. We recognise in particular that some use of the Act by the media gives rise to some very important investigations that are clearly in the public interest, and that a fee for information requests could hamper those investigations in future."

The public sector is facing increasing demands in the fields of social care and housing at a time when budgets are being slashed, but it looks like they are still going to have to stomach the costs of FOIA for the foreseeable future.

This note contains general guidance only on English Law as at October 2017 and does not contain legal advice. You should take legal advice on the circumstances of your own case. If we can be of assistance in that regard please let us know. Ashfords LLP is regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The information in this note is intended to be general information about English law only and not comprehensive. It is not to be relied on as legal advice nor as an alternative to taking professional advice relating to specific circumstances.

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