Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Second Front

Top SecretMacLean's bill is in trouble, but the backup plan is already rolling
The blatant self-interest in David Maclean's Freedom of Information (Amendment) bill was what first really got me interested in the attacks on the public right to know, so much so that I'd almost forgotten about some of the other attempts to restrict the FOI act's use.

In fact for some time the government has been looking at changes to the scope of the legislation based, allegedly on the number of vexatious requests and the costs of fulfilling them. The principle they are looking at is to factor in more realistic costs of official's time in responding to the requests. This seems to have been floating around even longer than the Maclean bill, but I initially took less offence at these proposals. I suppose that I spend enough time factoring costs like these into proposals I put out it seems reasonable enough and certainly there does seem to have been some abuses of the system, most of which could be described as FOI spam. As with other types of spam, FOI spam seems to be divisible into the malicious, where the sheer number of the requests seems designed to jam up the operation of the system, and the frankly daft (some examples have included questions about the number of hot, single police officers in some county or another).

The problem is, once you realise that there are ulterior motives behind attempts to limit the use of the act in one way, you can begin to see that even sensible sounding changes may have a similar underlying agenda. It becomes all too easy to see how these changes could be used almost at will to deny requests whenever the government saw fit, highlighted on many blogs and on the BBC. Knowing the way some of these things work, and the way real costs of employees time can add up, it would become very easy to block any request on the grounds of cost.

I doubt that there is a simple way to make the changes to the costing model without shattering any faith in the integrity of the system. Surely, what should be tried first is a basic filing fee, perhaps just £20-£50, with exemptions for certain key organisations such as professional bodies, and organisations like Citizen's Advice Bureaux (if these still exist??) that may be acting on behalf of individuals who may find even this relatively small charge impossible to bear. That alone should be enough to deal with most of the spam. After that would be up to the government to make a real case for further restrictions which, with the silly headline grabbing stories out of the way, they might actually find quite difficult.

Of course a few frivolous claims will still go in but, just like some of the characters who can scrape together the deposit to stand in an election, most will just add a bit of colour to the grey processes of goverment without causing any real harm. I would love to know the type of questions the late Screaming Lord Such would have asked of our lords and masters.

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