A new consultation on Freedom Of Information requests, which have until now allowed members of the public to access government data for free, is seeking to charge for the service, and has left people feeling deeply divided about the proposal.

Some have suggested that to charge for this information would limit a fundamental right, one which allows for greater transparency inside government, whilst others have taken the view that charging a fee is only reasonable in light of the man hours it requires to answer these requests and source the information asked for, where possible.

So who is right, and how should we address yet another cut to services which are most often used either by the most vulnerable in society, or on their behalf?

The Freedom Of Information Act was implemented in 2005 by a then Labour government, and celebrated its 10th birthday last year. Among some of its victories, was its highlighting of the varying levels of performance across NHS hospitals, promoting greater transparency within the public sector and closer to home, the realisation that a vast and growing number of families were having to represent themselves in Family Court due to dwindling legal aid and unaffordable legal representation. FOI was intended to improve government, highlight injustice and bring about positive change. And under the LibDem – Tory coalition, a further 100 organisations were added to the list of bodies whose data could be accessed under the service.

But under an unfettered Conservative government, which set up a less than kosher panel this year to examine ‘the public’s right to know versus the need for sensitive information to have robust protection’, all that is about to change.

The current call to evidence within the consultation describes a power within the Act to charge for requests, and offers data collected by various consultancy firms and government bodies on the costs of dealing with FOI queries. As the service continues to grow in popularity – there are now almost 1,000 requests every week – the lack of funding to match this increase is straining already struggling government departments.

This though, should not be a reason to limit a statutory right to information through fees – the current consultation even suggests charging up to a whopping 500 Euros per request. Instead, we must first ask ourselves why it is that a monitoring body like FOI is soaring in popularity and why the public feel compelled to search for answers on this platform.

A creeping, and not undeserved, mistrust in government is contributing to the FOI’s popularity. As answers are not forthcoming from cabinet ministers or other government officials concerning developments surrounding legal aid, budget cuts and support services, the public has taken to exercising its right to this information through FOI. Researching Reform alone has made dozens of requests over the years, but what we noticed is that often, our requests are unsuccessful – the Act offers discretion as to what can and can’t be accessed and much of the data the public deserves to see, goes unpublished. FOI then, has never been a free-for-all in that sense, and arguably should be opened up even further, not watered down.

This, in light of a growing trend within commercial corporations looking to benefit from government data. A recent request from one of the largest tobacco companies in the world seeking to discredit the government’s research on plain packaging and discover the smoking habits of teenagers highlights the dangers of charging for FOI. Large corporations are more than happy to pay a few hundred Euros for research or data that may increase their profit margins by millions, but the vulnerable and the poor, cannot. To charge then, would simply increase the gap between those who make FOI requests in the name of profit, and those who make them to highlight injustice and improve government services. The very reasons the Act was implemented in the first place.

We are told that as part of its ethos, the Freedom of Information Act was designed to, “transform the culture of Government from one of secrecy to one of openness’; ‘raise confidence in the processes of government, and enhance the quality of decision making by Government’. By charging for this service, we will effectively be doing the opposite, and turning FOI in relative terms into a cheap alternative for Multi Million Pound industries looking to source data quickly and without having to shoulder the costs of in-house R&D.

The real issue then, is not whether FOI is too expensive or a drain on the economy, but whether the government will look to improving its services in tandem with FOI, so that requests become fewer and less lengthy. If it manages to do that, FOI will cost the nation less without compromising government transparency or what’s left of public confidence in politics.

Freedom of Information must remain just that – free.

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