Article: Academic use of freedom of information

Right to know under attack
Information World Review, by Heather Brooke
27 Nov 2006

  • Of the 250 freedom of information requests received by the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority since January 2005, 87 have been from academics or students. This growing field of academic research will be killed off if the government gets its way.
  • Government proposals have aroused “great concern” among researchers.

Just as researchers are beginning to use the Freedom of Information Act for serious investigative research, the government has announced changes that will block all but the silliest and simplest requests.

Under the changes, proposed by the Lord Chancellor, lawyers, academics, campaigners, businesses and journalists would be grouped according to their “legal body”. Each legal body would be restricted to asking a limited number of questions within a two-month period. The proposals would also make it much easier for public bodies to refuse information requests on cost grounds.

“If introduced, these changes would have major implications for researchers using the Act and would probably serve as a disincentive to use,” said Steve Wood, senior lecturer in information management at Liverpool John Moores University.

The new aggregating powers will mean that once one university academic has made a request that uses up the cost allowance, all other academics from the same university could be refused access for the next two months.

Currently, requests under the Freedom of Information Act are aggregated by individual and are generally free of charge as long as they fall below certain cost caps: �600 for central government and �450 for all other public authorities, including the cost of searching and collating material.

But the Lord Chancellor also wants to include in the costs the time spent reading, making a decision and referring requests to ministers, effectively incentivising bureaucracy and inefficiency.

The changes contradict the recommendations of the parliamentary select committee into the Act, which sat last summer, and of the UK and Scottish information commissioners, who want no change in the fees regime.

Duncan Tanner at the University of Wales, Bangor, said the proposals had aroused “great concern” among researchers. Tanner is trying to access nearly 80 files relating to Welsh language legislation in the 1990s and if the changes go through his work will be obstructed.

Academic axe
It is difficult to know the precise scale of academic and business use of the Act because it may be some time before private research is published. But of the 250 freedom of information requests received by the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority since January 2005, 87 have been from academics or students. This growing field of academic research will be killed off if the government gets its way.

Despite the government’s rhetoric about the desire for more “evidence-based policy”, the consultation into freedom of information was conducted in total secrecy.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs even commissioned Frontier Economics, a private company with former cabinet secretary Andrew Turnbull on the board, to argue that freedom of information costs too much public money. It has refused requests from the Campaign for Freedom of Information for the facts on which the cost analysis was based.

Campaigners question the cost estimate because the study takes no account of savings from the Act. For example, since the Scottish Parliament began publishing detailed expense claims for its MSPs under the Scottish Act, the number of claims has plummeted.

A culture of secrecy allows public servants to hide problems rather than solve them, feeding a steady stream of scandals and crisis management. Freedom of information is the cheapest, most egalitarian way of managing public bodies. It benefits democracy by creating an informed citizenry and galvanises public bodies into improving their systems.

A survey by the information commissioner found that 81% of freedom of information practitioners viewed the Act as a positive piece of legislation that improved records management systems and increased public trust in services.

Transparency ensures that policies and decisions are based on evidence rather than opinion, prejudice or favours. It also prioritises records management as a key element in ensuring queries are answered with the minimum of fuss. Despite these positives, the government looks intent on crippling its own law and introducing the changes as secondary legislation that do not require parliamentary approval.

The Lord Chancellor has said he is interested in public comment on the changes, but perhaps it is an indication of his real position on open government to find no contact address given anywhere in the proposals.

The appropriate place to direct comments is Baroness Ashton of Upholland, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, the Department for Constitutional Affairs, Selborne House, 54 Victoria Street, London SW1E 6QW.
(Note: the Department has since changed its name to the Ministry of Justice)

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One Response to “Article: Academic use of freedom of information”

  1. Nick Evans says:

    Out of interest, Heather, how often have you made requests that would be excluded by the new regime? i.e., multiple unrelated requests to the same public authority within 3 months of each other (the draft regulations say 60 working days, rather than 40, as you imply above – see draft reg. 7(2)(a) at http://www.dca.gov.uk/consult/dpr2007/cp2806-condoc.pdf).

    Interested in what the impact is likely to be on a relatively high-profile “target” of these changes.

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