Leading article: The cost of knowing

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The Independent Online

What a difference a year makes. In January 2005, Lord Falconer was rolling out the red carpet for the Freedom of Information Act on behalf of the Government and proclaiming how "proud" he was that "we are willing to trust the people by subjecting ourselves to a statutory access regime". They were encouraging words for those of us who had campaigned for greater democratic scrutiny of the workings of the state. But, 12 months on, there are worrying signs that the Government has fallen out of love with the whole idea of freedom of information.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs is conducting a review of the Act's operation. And the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, Maurice Frankel, has been told that this review may propose charging the public for each information request made.

The issue is not one of cost; at least not for the Government. The volume of requests has not exceeded expectations. And the complaints from the Civil Service about the amount of time taken up in complying with the Act are predictable. They were not keen on freedom of information from the start. But the strange thing is Lord Falconer increasingly seems to agree with them. He has complained about what he describes as "frivolous requests", such as people wanting to know the number of windows in government department buildings.

This is where charging comes in. Unsurprisingly, any freedom of information system is sensitive to fees. When Ireland increased its fees three years ago, the volume of requests fell by a quarter. The conclusion that will have to be drawn from any introduction of fees is that the Government hopes to reduce the number of requests. So much for trusting the people. It now seems the public's legitimate requests for information have become too much of an inconvenience to those in power.

The Act has performed adequately so far. Some 16,000 pieces of information have been released, ranging from a list of the UK beneficiaries of farm subsidies to the Chequers guest list. But the fact that 22 per cent of appeals against the official withholding of information have been upheld and that many potentially embarrassing pieces of information remain off limits suggests that - if anything - the operation of the Act needs to be strengthened.

As Tony Blair said in 1996, when castigating the former Tory administration's opposition to the introduction of this Act: "Any government's attitude about sharing information with the people actually says a great deal about how it views power itself and how it views the relationship between itself and the people who elected it." Let us hope that these words do not come back to haunt the Prime Minister.

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