Whitehall to charge for information: Fees 'limit access to government files'

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Indy Politics
THE PUBLIC will have to pay for information supplied under new open government guidelines announced yesterday as an alternative to a freedom of information bill. Departments will be able to ask for the money in advance.

The guidelines announced by William Waldegrave, the public service minister, give any individual or organisation the right to ask for information from the files of any department. This can range from requests for details from a personal social security file, to a protest group asking for the relative costs of routes for a proposed bypass.

The charges, which will be levied differently by each department, are likely to be a small flat fee for the first two or three hours of an official's time, then the economic cost, about pounds 20 an hour on average. Last night the Campaign for Freedom of Information said the cost would deter most requests for information.

Maurice Frankel, director of the pressure group, said: 'I had no idea they would be charging so much. At that level only commercial organisations will be able to afford access.' Where departments had muddled files and took longer to produce information, the inefficiency would have to be paid for by the public, he added.

Requests from journalists to press offices will still be dealt with free, but if a newspaper uses the formal information-seeking procedure for complex subjects, they too may be charged. The only information not covered by the charges is anything explaining policy, rules, and services of a department. The Department of the Environment said the first pounds 50 worth of information would be free, with the rest charged at cost.

The Foreign Office said it would charge a pounds 15 flat fee, to be increased on a sliding scale still to be worked out. The Cabinet Office will answer simple requests free, with charges coming in at a scale to be arranged. The Department of Transport said it hoped to make the first half day's work free, but was still working out its charges.

Departments defend their charges for complicated inquiries as reasonable to protect the taxpayer. Parliamentary answers cost an average of pounds 95 each to answer and where the cost would exceed pounds 450 to uncover, the information is not given.

The new government guidelines come into force from Monday and do not need an Act of Parliament.

They stipulate that answers should normally be given within 20 days. Where the department does not give a satisfactory answer, it can be referred, via an MP, to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. He will not be able to force disclosure, but will have to rely on the deterrent effect of criticising the department in a published report.

Many areas are excluded from the guidelines, including the nationalised industries, the police, the security services, the Bank of England, the BBC and the Civil Aviation Authority. The National Health Service will be covered by a separate code still to be published.