Freedom of information: it will cost you

The facts we need to know have turned into `Government-held tradeable information. Peter Victor reports
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The Independent Online
WANT to know if your house is likely to be flooded? Want to know which areas have seen outbreaks of salmonella in eggs? Want to know about the safety record of your local factory? You can find out. But only at a price.

This is the nature of "open government" in 1995. Slowly, with hardly a soul noticing, John Major's government - which so loudly proclaims it is opening the door to official information - is putting up a subtle barrier: cost. More and more information in the public domain now comes with a price tag.

When the British workplace safety monitoring group Hazard asked for details of Health & Safety Executive improvement and prohibition notices to factories, it expected to have to pay. Nevertheless, the group was stunned when the HSE wrote back and said the price for the information under the Government's new open government rules would be pounds 226,399 and 41p.

Hazard is not alone. Richard North, an independent environmental health consultant, wanted to know which local authorities had reported outbreaks of salmonella in eggs. The Public Health Laboratory demanded pounds 2,000 to pounds 3,000.

A small nuclear monitoring group based in the Shetlands (the Northern European Nuclear Investigation Group) was asked for pounds 325 - upfront - for details of discharges into the sea from the nuclear complex at Dounreay in Scotland. Two-and-a-half A4 pages arrived, most of which was information the group already had.

In April 1994 William Waldegrave, then the minister responsible for open government, introduced new guidelines. The idea was to make it easier for people to find out what was in government files. The Code of Practice on Access to Government Information helped to quell a chorus of demands for a Freedom of Information Act. It promised to provide "timely and accessible information to the citizen to explain the Government's policies, actions and decisions", restricting access to that information "only when there are good reasons for doing so".

According to a Cabinet Office report on the code, some 2,600 applications for information were made in the first nine months. Many were dealt with free. But many government departments have introduced a bewildering variety of charging schemes for information.

The Ministry of Agriculture, the Foreign Office and the Inland Revenue demand pounds 15 in advance - non-refundable even if they supply no information.

The Home Office charges pounds 20 an hour if the request takes more than an hour of staff time.

The Department of Trade and Industry and Welsh Office work free up to pounds 100 but after that charge the full amount, including the initial pounds 100. On 1 June the Department of Health announced that health authorities could charge pounds 20 an hour to deal with questions.

The Government is anxious that people do not go on fishing expeditions for masses of information they do not really need. But there are already rules to weed out "vexatious or manifestly unreasonable" requests. Ministries say they have to recover the costs of extra work.

In each of the cases involving potentially huge charges they said they were justified. An HSE spokesman said Hazard's request would have involved writing to each factory to ask permission to release the data. The Public Health Laboratory said it was not covered by the code but did embrace its spirit: "This particular research involved a lot of research and contacting all the health authorities involved."

But government departments are actually being encouraged to sell information whenever possible. The latest copy of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) publication Government Held Tradeable Information says selling information to the private sector is a good money-spinner: "Information is a particularly valuable commodity: almost uniquely it can be sold and retained at the same time."

Although the guidelines are intended mainly for government dealings with companies, they stress: "Information is a commodity which has value, can be bought and sold like any other."

The message has got through to most government departments and executive agencies. Many charge for the most basic information. The National Rivers Authority, for example, demands pounds 35 to tell people if their houses are at risk from flooding.

The Meteorological Office charges for weather information. Last December it demanded a fee - not less than pounds 100, a spokesman estimated - to confirm that Leeds had seen the most white Christmases.

Ordnance Survey, which holds the copyright to county boundaries, the outline of Britain and the National Grid, levies pounds 2,000 for the use of those outlines. According to Friends of the Earth, an American computerised map of the world has a hole where the UK should be, because the map makers would not pay OS.

Campaign groups believe such charges have a more sinister function, as a way of suppressing information. FoE says a simple request for bathing water data for Wales was met with a demand for pounds 150 Industry and pollution campaigner Alan Watson said: "We said we would send an army of volunteers with laptop computers to collect the information from their printed records, so they sent us the information for nothing. But most ordinary people aren't likely to push like that. There is a whole range of information gathered at public expense which is now being sold to the highest bidder."

Many people who ask questions under the code are intimidated by the threat of charges. Of 90 people who asked the Inland Revenue for information under the code last year, ninedropped their requests when they told how much it would cost.

Media organisations are being targeted for charges by government departments. One early example is Scotland Yard's pre- recorded press information tape. In 1988 the service, formerly free, was transferred to an 0891 premium rate number. On the afternoon we rang, the nine items on the tape added up to 13 minutes of listening at 48p a minute. Scotland Yard refuses to discuss what happens to the money, but it is split between the 0891 service provider and the police.

Other government departments are less reticent. More than 40 (they wouldn't give the precise number) press photographers and TV cameramen paid the Army's household division pounds 75 each to film Trooping the Colour yesterday.

A Parliamentary select committee now looking into the open government initiative is expected to produce a report after the summer recess. Committee members have been studying Australia and Canada, where freedom of information is put to much greater use by the public. It will question David Hunt, the minister now responsible for open government.

Freedom of information campaigners are not hopeful about the outcome of the select committee hearings. They feel increasingly that commercialisation of public information is restricting the flow of what used to be freely available data and that only they are fighting the trend.

Confrontation between the two sides has been fierce. The National Rivers Authority recently revised its charges after an acrimonious dispute with the Campaign for Freedom of Information over charges of pounds 100 for one A3 page of data.

Maurice Frankel, director of the CFI, says government moves towards openness have been accompanied at every stage by charging regimes which block access to information.

"It is not credible when the Government says it is committed to openness and then says you have to pay pounds 20 to get information. We distinguish between commercial concerns seeking information for commercial purposes and individuals or community groups who want information in the public interest.

"There is a danger that the Government is using charges to ensure secrets remain secret. If the Government restricts information to those who can pay for it then, ultimately, only busines-ses will get it. It will exclude individuals, community groups - and even MPs."

Additional research by Max Berendt.