The Freedom of Information Act came into effect in 2005 and has three main aims: to facilitate openness and transparency; to encourage accountable government; and to aid decision making and the public’s involvement in such procedures. FOI essentially gives anyone the right to request information from public authorities and organisations and, subject to conditions such as how long it will take to acquire the information and how much it will cost to do so, to be given it.
The government is currently considering putting in place amendments suggested in a memorandum submitted in December 2011 by the Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Justice which advised that carrying out FOI requests was often felt to be a use of time that could be better spent elsewhere. It was suggested that a fee could be introduced to deter “nuisance” – that is, frequent – requesters. The Guardian then reported that the Ministry of Justice believed that these serial requesters were in fact journalists “fishing” for a story.
It is not explained exactly why this is a problem, but the implication is clearly that it is not within the terms of the Act to deal with such requests. But this, especially as justification for the introduction of a fee, is problematic for several reasons.
Firstly, the act is quite clearly for the purpose of serving the public interest. Deterring journalists from obtaining information implies that journalism does not act in the public interest. Journalism may not have the best reputation at the moment, and rightly so in many cases, but it is still clearly wrong for the government to use a scandal in which they were complicit for their own purposes. Seen in this light, this is as good as censorship. The government fundamentally do not have a right to secrecy. Submitting an FOI request will never be the kind of thing that every member of the public does as a standard activity – the process of letter-writing and waiting and chasing up is hardly an appealing prospect, even without the risk of incurring a fee for doing so – but this on no account means that they do not have a right to knowledge. The media can, and generally do, play the role of facilitator and transmitter. Free access to information, whether for individuals or organisations, is thus clearly in the public interest.
As well as this, if it is journalists that are the problem, do ministers really believe that charging a nominal fee would stop them from attempting to obtain information? The Guardian acknowledges that the kind of journalism its writers do is expensive. They, and others, can probably afford a fee. This is, of course, unless the price is to be set prohibitively high. If this was the case, financial implications would add another off-putting obstacle to the obstructive bureaucracy already in the way of the general public.
It also seems clear that the introduction of fees would necessitate another level of administration; both to set the policy on pricing and to carry it out once legislation had been passed. This would surely incur cost itself, which the fees imposed would not cover. This alone, moral arguments aside, renders the proposal financially futile – and the government would have us believe that any amendments that were made would be for financial, cost-effective, reasons. It thus seems clear that this is in fact about more than money and time.
The reasonableness of the argument presented in the Secretary of State for Justice’s memorandum is almost scary: on a certain level, it is hard to disagree with the idea that civil servants’ time should not be wasted. But this is all rather convenient for a government whose attitude towards Freedom of Information has been described as “grudging” by the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham. Let’s be clear: this would be an amendment which would place a tangible hurdle in the way of the acquisition of information. Any attempt to justify the withholding of information seems extremely suspect. Fundamentally, a government that is willing to put a price on knowledge is not a government that is to be trusted.