Government turns down FOI request for FOI data

The Department for Constitutional Affairs becomes more Kafkaesque as time goes on. Officials there have selected members for a freedom of information group in secrecy, been the worst department for cooperating with the FOI regulator, held a consultation into open government behind closed doors and now this…

The DCA has refused a freedom of information request for the data behind its controversial report into freedom of information! One begins to think the DCA would make an ideal setting for a revived series of ‘Yes Minister’ with cheeky Charlie Falconer reprising the role of Sir Humphrey.

Leading FOI campaigner Maurice Frankel made the request asking for the data gathered by Frontier Economics which it used to claim that FOI cost the taxpayer £35million. This figure was used as the ruse by which the Government hopes to kill off the public’s right to question public officials.

“We asked the DCA for the results of the one week survey they carried out at the beginning of the year to look at the actual time spent by officials in dealing with requests,” Frankel said. “This is the data that was given to Frontier Economics and forms a major part of the data that they based their assessments on and we’ve been refused that data on the basis that it relates to the formulation of government policy and disclosure would not be in the public interest.”

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has published the letter from the DCA refusing the request. “I can confirm that the department holds information falling within the scope of all three elements of your request,” it says. “However, the information is exempt from disclosure under section 35(1)(a) of the FOI Act, which exempts information that relates to the formulation and development of government policy.”

In an article in Out-Law, a spokeswoman for the DCA says the decision was under internal review. “Factual and statistical information should not be released while the policy decision has not been made, and this decision has not been made yet,” said the spokeswoman, referring to the changes to the charging structure relating to the FOI Act.

Frankel also challenges the £300 an hour rate that Frontier said was the cost of a Minister’s time.

“We don’t know how it’s been calculated, there is no explanation of how exactly it’s been derived or why involving a minister should cost as much as that, it’s a vast sum to be attributed to a minister,” said Frankel.

One of the company’s directors, Michael Ridge, was quoted in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper saying that “it is difficult to identify an appropriate benchmark for the cost of ministerial time. However the opportunity costs of ministerial time could be considered similar to that of senior executives or partners in a city law firm.”

There is no good reason why Ministers should be consulted on all FOI requests. In the US federal government, secretaries of state leave it to their FOI officers to deal with answering requests. After all, that’s what FOI officers are paid to do. Ministers need to devolve responsibility in a similar way. The current system of collective responsibility is out-dated and inefficient.

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