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Closing the taps

The Ministry of Justice has produced a report for the Justice Select Committee on the impact of FOI legislation in the UK.

There is a great deal of discussion of the cost to the civil service of compliance. There is a lot of talk of introducing charges for FOI requests.

A lot of talk.

I think it would be wise if readers here wrote the the Justice Select Committee - chairman Sir Alan Beith - and told him that it would not be a good idea to introduce charges for FOI requests.

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Reader Comments (20)

I used to do FOI requests in New Zealand. (Official Information Act it is there.)

The easiest thing to do was give the information. Not giving it was more work than giving it. It took a few years for the mindset to change though - initially there was this in-built desire to keep everything secret.

We charged only if the information took a long time to copy and was in paper. Electronic information was no problem.

Dec 19, 2011 at 7:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterMooloo

A nominal charge of just £1 would at least deter a lot of the completely frivolous enquiries.

Dec 19, 2011 at 7:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterJoe Public

Here in the province of Ontario in Canada a fee is charged for FOI requests and copies are charged back to the requester. I know of this since I work in an education archives and deal with personal information.

Dec 19, 2011 at 7:56 PM | Unregistered Commentergenealogymaster

Thanks for the heads up. I'll read the report and write to the Committee with a cc to WhatDoTheyKnow. I'll also make comment on the Statute of Limitations issue.

Dec 19, 2011 at 7:58 PM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

Wouldn't it cost more than £1 to collect the charges though? (Perhaps someone could do an FOI request to every department.)

Committee staff contact addresses at

Beith's email :

Dec 19, 2011 at 8:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Page

Even the best and most efficient FOI legislation is a mixed blessing. As someone who has seen and been subject to the FOI system from the inside in one large and very diverse government department in Australia, I can understand and empathise with the scientific community when they rail against the inconvenience and diversion of resources involved in even the simplest FOI request. But, as many have said in here, with relatively rare exceptions, there is a simple solution for scientists acting in good faith: put your data out there for the world to see. The whole point of FOI legislation is to force bureaucrats and others on the public payroll to act in good faith. The corollary is that if deliberate evasion or avoidance of FOI requests occurs, then a lack of good faith can safely be assumed and dealt with accordingly.

There is no doubt that the media often uses the FOI system to trawl for "gotchas" when they are targetting governments or individuals. Clearly the Hockey Team and their claque believe that FOI requests by individual sceptics are similarly motivated. However, as annoying as it might be to those who have to answer such requests, they ought to be seen as simply the "due diligence" obligations of a responsible citizenry, and dealt with as a moral obligation of scientists to prove to the tax-paying public that their product is of merchantable quality.

All else is mere cant.

Dec 19, 2011 at 8:09 PM | Registered CommenterMique

Having dealt with FOI requests as a public servant in Australia, I appeal for a middle ground here.

In the last place I worked in which might attract such requests, we had a few of the unfortunate people who BOMBARDED US WITH LETTERS IN CAPS and red, and underlining, and with FOI requests. There were not very many of them, but one guy who was convinced that there was a whole of government conspiracy against him had over 100 files and thousands of hours of time dedicated to his endless, frankly loony, requests.

Because he was a pensioner, he was not charged for anything on the grounds of equity.

It is an extreme example, but he was not alone. Nutters took up a huge chunk of our time, for free.

I much prefer the US model, where everything is presumed to be available. Under the adverserial model, even the most trivial requests had to be vetted by senior executives and lawyers, at great expense. Giving cost free access in a contested environment is likely to result in the worst of both worlds. Far better to lower the bar on secrecy overall.

It probably won't reduce the number of PEOPLE WHO WRITE IN CAPS demanding to know what secrets about them the Government is holding. But, it will greatly reduce the cost of dealing with them, along with giving most inquirers quick and uncomplicated access to information that almost always is uncontroversial.

Dec 19, 2011 at 8:14 PM | Unregistered Commenterjohanna

what I find strange is that, if you know or suspect that your actions are subject to FOIA, why not create a data storage structure that facilitates compliance with FOIA requests - so that you do not have to go delving all over the place to find data and related emails?

Dec 19, 2011 at 8:18 PM | Unregistered Commenterdiogenes

After having read all about how science is supposed to work in books by Dawkins, Hawking, Sagan, Goldacre and others, I fail to see why FOI requests should be required at all when it comes to scientific matters. I am currently re-reading the Hockey Stick Illusion and I am baffled as to why the scientific establishment were not totally on Micheal Mann's case asking what the hell he was trying to hide. The aformentioned writers give the impression that being totally open is the done thing, that if your theory is sound it will withstand every attempt to disprove it. Not only that, the true scientist will want to know about it if his theory is not sound. If, that is, he is an honest seeker after truth.

Climate alarmists seem to have strayed so far from this ideal that I am amazed that science blogs are still siding with them and hurling 'denier' at the sceptics, rather than calling such sloppy scientists to account. I am comforted by the thought that bad science always eventually hits the buffers of reality. I am looking forward to reading the pathetic excuses of those who carried on believing long after the truth became obvious.

Dec 19, 2011 at 8:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterStonyground

Alan Beith is opposed to charges for FOI requests.

However he is a LibDem. If the Tories decided to propose charges for FOI reqests, or even such things as the reintroduction of the Workhouse, you can bet your bottom dollar that the LibDems would support it.

Dec 19, 2011 at 8:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterMac

There is a wide spectrum of FOI requests, and the latest information I have is that the vast majority relate to people's personal interests (mostly the basis on which they are given or denied benefits, jobs, contracts etc).

Rather than tangling with all the complexities of FOI, surely there should just be a broad policy principle that publicly funded research is, in principle, public? And that exceptions should have to be publicly argued?

Dec 19, 2011 at 8:55 PM | Unregistered Commenterjohanna

Your Grace

I don't think it is as easy as saying either charge or not charge. There are some requests that ARE just too costly. I have personally watched as one of my colleagues spent three months -- that's right THREE months non-stop full-time on an OIA act request here in New Zealand. It cost the taxpayer something like $50,000 in wages and direct costs, but more significantly meant that one half of a team working on a major policy issue was not available to do any work.

What was more galling was that the request was basically so that the person concerned could do their PhD without having to spend the time finding the info themselves. (We did offer to let them come and search the files themselves (all of which were at least 20 years old so were not particularly sensitive or anything - but we couldn't transfer them to archives because they were still being used) -- but they deliberately used the OIA so that they didn't have to spend the time instead in essence getting an unpaid research assistant. She said that in almost exactly those words when discussing her request.

At the time the department didn't have a policy of charging -- but after that it certainly did.
However the policy is not to charge always -- it is to charge when the cost gets large -- and the definition of large is taken to be more than two weeks work. Personally I don't think that is unreasonable. The department also has a policy of proactively releasing things so that the cost of OIA requests on departmental time was minimized.

So while it might feel good to say that there should never be a charge, I think there are occasions when it should happen.

Dec 19, 2011 at 9:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

There is a limit set in the UK of GBP400. That seems reasonable to me.

Dec 19, 2011 at 10:10 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

The Hawaii Dept of Health charge megabucks for FOI requests and then turn around and refuse to supply the information.

Dec 19, 2011 at 10:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterMargaretO

Commercial companies find compliance costs a pain too. The ecofascists want a big bully state so they should get used to the drawbacks.

Dec 19, 2011 at 11:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterJustice4Rinka

From the Ecclesiastical Uncle, an old retired bureaucrat in a field only remotely related to climate, with minimal qualifications and only half a mind.

Bureaucratic minds, even when only half there, think alike it seems. I recall putting this idea up in a post many months back without of course, having had any contact with those who inhabit the corridors of power.

But then no one seemed to notice.

I think I then added that disputes as to the amounts of costs should be a matter for a judge, or I suppose the Commissioner if that’s what he is called. I now further add that anyone disputing a determination on charges by the judge or whatever should be liable for all the costs of arguing the matter.

A reduction in requests to our own dear Phil would leave him more time to get on with the business of collecting global temperature data! Ho Ho!

Dec 20, 2011 at 2:01 AM | Unregistered CommenterEcclesiastical Uncle

Assuming the usual M.O. I predict some academic, with the correct tie, will be appointed FOIA Czar. He, or she, will of course be offered more salary than the Prime Minister, with a whopping pension, who will introduce charges to make the department "sustainable" while metering out "consultant fees", to others wearing the correct tie, who will "advise" whatever is required to be "advised".

This will enable government to look like they playing by the rules, while controlling what is released.

Inevitably they will be accused of not playing by the rules, in which case said czar will meter out even more fees, to even more correct ties, to say exactly what is required to give the correct impression at the enquiry.

The enquiry team will have it's members accused of conflict of interest, no doubt another bunch of correct ties will instigate further inquiries at their various universities, backing the original enquiry to the hilt.

Drinks all round.

Dec 20, 2011 at 7:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterFrosty

Irony of ironies: the origins of the World Wide Web lie with the work of Tim Berners-Lee to enable much easier sharing of scientific data among particle physicists at CERN in the late '80s.

This idea should now be extended and completed in its world-wide execution, as should have been the norm many years before now!!

While that early work (Berners-Lee) was not necessarily connected to any world-wide openness of data, the principle is simple:

all scientific data, codes and methods associated with any published work (and certainly with any publicly funded work) ought to be made transparently accessible on the web.

While some number of FOI type requests may be more about emails and other bureaucratic docs, if the scientific data/code/methods were already available online, at or before time of publication, that would remove the need for many FOI requests and climate scientists etc. would have no basis to complain of burdens in responding to such (no longer needed) FOI requests.

An added public and scientific benefit would be that the apparently shoddy data and documentation practices of many climate scientists would have to be cleaned up and regularized immediately.

Specific exceptions can be argued for categories of national security, etc. but in general all data/code/methods should be readily available. This should be an ethical norm where it cannot be legally required, and it should be a legal requirement for all public funding (of course it is up to each country's political process to determine whether and how to do this).

Dec 23, 2011 at 4:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterSkiphil

This is back-to-front. What is needed is mandatory prison sentences for failure to comply with FOI. And a drastic reduction in exemptions.

Dec 24, 2011 at 8:06 AM | Unregistered CommenterPunksta

For climate, at least, it should not be a question of a civil servant copying some information from a location hidden from the public, to one that is visible to the public Rather, the information should reside only in some publicly visible location in the first place.
The public would then have access to everything, without civil servants having to lift a finger to get it to them.

Dec 24, 2011 at 8:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterPunksta

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