Regulator wants to end free FOI

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Parliament: Committee is reviewing FOI legislation.

Charging for requests would deter people from abusing the system, according to OSCR. 

13th August 2019 by Gavin Stuart 1 Comment

Public bodies should be able to charge a fee for answering Freedom of Information requests, according to the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR).

In a submission to the Scottish Parliament, OSCR said charging for some requests would deter individuals from “misusing” FOI regulations for their personal benefit.

The regulator said it supported the overall aim of FOI in ensuring public bodies are open and accountable, but current legislation made it too easy for people to make requests that did not serve the public interest.

These include journalists using the FOI Act for stories which have no relevance to OSCR’s duties, or requests from individuals working for commercial organisations in order to seek an advantage over their competitors.

OSCR also complained about “serial” requestors who make “frivolous and vexatious” requests, placing additional burdens on the regulator's information officers.

The submission states: “While the majority of the requests received by public authorities are submitted within the spirit of the legislation, we strongly believe that some of the original policy intentions have been lost because of the way in which the Act is being used by certain individuals.

“We believe a significant proportion of the requests we receive do little to advance public knowledge or meet wider public interest.

“We would welcome the introduction of some form of deterrent; say a form of charging, preventing individuals from misusing the Act or using it for their personal benefit.”

The regulator also recommended imposing an additional charge for complex requests which might involve reading and redacting hundreds of documents.

“We would welcome a change in the legislation that would allow public authorities to charge for time spent reading and considering information,” the submission states.

OSCR stressed that it would not want to see charges levied on every request, but that a “new approach” was necessary to “prevent individuals from misusing the Act”.

The regulator also called for timescales to be lengthened for complex requests, saying the current 20-day limit is too short, and for a “plain English” approach to help requestors better understand the information they receive.

David Adamson, OSCR information manager, said: “As a public authority, we aim to be transparent, consistent and fair in our work and in our decision-making. 

“The FOISA legislation has an important role in underpinning that transparency. We think that some changes could help to make the system work better for all those using it. 

“While we have suggested charging in some specific circumstances, this could only work if it did not make the system inaccessible for those requesting information.”

OSCR’s submission is one of 55 received by the Scottish Parliament’s Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Commission, which is examining how FOI can be improved.

The Scottish Government has proposed simplifying various aspects of the FOI Act, as well as clarifying which requests can be rejected as “vexatious”. Oral evidence will be heard by the committee later this year.

13th August 2019 by Ruchir Shah

Not sure about this proposal. I worry it would deter genuine requests, and only favour those FOI-ing as part of their job e.g. journalists.Why don't you simply proactively publish the information, if i's FOIable anyway?