St Albans Council are one of an increasing number of public bodies to complain about Freedom of Information requests. In calculating the cost to the body of a quarter of a million pounds every year, they said that over one in ten requests come from the Metropolitan Police.
But Tim Turner was skeptical. So he asked how many of the police requests actually mentioned FOI. They avoided the question:
“St Albans drew my attention to a section on the Information Commissioner’s website which says that any request for information that is plainly not an EIR or a subject access request should be treated as an FOI.”
The implication being that routine requests for information from other public bodies may be being classified as ‘FOI’ as a way of inflating costs and supporting the case against it – even where they would previously just be routine.
Turner then asked specifically how many of those police requests were made under the Data Protection Act:
“They admitted that all of them were“.
Every so often public officials who wish to curtail Freedom of Information rights will argue that money spent on fulfilling FOI requests might be better spent on healthcare, or fixing roads, or catching criminals.
This argument is superficially persuasive, but there are two significant counter-arguments:
- Firstly, that as taxpayers we have already ‘paid’ for the collection of information held by public authorities and have the right to access that;
- And secondly that FOI allows citizens to scrutinise how our money is being spent and highlight inefficiencies and abuse.
In other words, even if your argument is purely economic (rather than, say, about democratic accountability), Freedom of Information may save at least as much money as it costs: money which, well, might also be better spent on healthcare, or fixing roads or catching criminals.
A system in which public officials can spend money without scrutiny is a system more open to abuse and overspending. So curtailing Freedom of Information to ‘save money’ may be a false economy.
The latest weapon to be used in attacking FOI is to list how many requests are being made by businesses. St Albans Council‘s media offensive against the FOI Act, for example, mentions that:
“57 percent of the requests were from businesses, 15 percent from the national media and 13 percent from the Metropolitan Police.”