Imposing fees on Freedom of Information requests would be “an extremely blunt instrument” that would limit access to justice, human rights campaigners have said.
Leading charity Liberty said it had used the act to expose injustices including discrimination under police stop and search rules and said that any reforms that downgraded Freedom of Information powers would be a “retrograde step”.
An independent commission was set up by the Government last year to review use of the Act, amid concerns around the protection of ‘sensitive’ information and warnings from public authorities that ‘vexatious’ FOI requests are inflicting a heavy time and cost burden.
However, giving evidence to the commission, Sam Hawke, an FOI specialist at Liberty, said the Act had in fact saved money by highlighting inappropriate uses of public money.
“Discussion of burden is inappropriate,” he said. “This is simply what a Government pays for, to remain open, transparent and accountable, and it’s a very, very small cost overall.
“In an area of real public importance and an era of retrenchment in access to justice through changes to legal aid, any further attempts to impose fees [or] widen exceptions would be an even more retrograde step in providing access to justice.”
Ministers have said they support the Freedom of Information Act, but campaigners fear that the review could recommend measures to limit its use, such as fees or exemptions. Labour’s Deputy Leader Tom Watson has launched an alternative review to look at ways the Act can be strengthened – for instance, by including private sector providers of public services.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of the NHS Providers organisation, which represents hospitals and other NHS organisations, joined calls for stronger protections for public bodies, and recommended that those making FOI requests should be charged for any appeal they make, after an initial claim has been turned down. FOI requests can already be rejected if it would be too costly or time consuming to gather the information.
“If the public body has rejected it, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for us to say to somebody: ‘we are going to make the bar a little higher so you really have to consider about making an appeal’,” Mr Hopson said.
“We’ve got some evidence from one of our members. The £300,000 it costs them each year to [deal with FOI requests] is the equivalent of 14 full time fully qualified nurses. Their view is that this is taking a considerable amount of resource off the frontline,” he added.