Councils should be allowed to charge to provide information to the public following a dramatic increase in Freedom of Information requests, Birmingham City Council has suggested.
It urged MPs to let it charge £25 for every request it deals with, after complaining that some people make hundreds of requests but don’t pay a penny.
The authority suggested the charging scheme in a submission to a Commons inquiry into the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, which gives the public a legal right to request information from public bodies.
Anyone can demand information under the legislation, and recent requests to Birmingham City Council have included details of parking tickets issued in the city, information about empty properties and a request for details of the council’s fleet of official vehicles.
But the authority complained that it now faces more than 1,500 requests a year – and some individuals were making hundreds of requests to various public bodies without paying a penny towards the cost.
In a separate submission, Chris Sims, the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police, also called for new restrictions on what the public could demand to see.
Currently, Parliament and central government can refuse to answer a request if it will cost more than £600 to gather the information required, and other public bodies can refuse if the cost will exceed £450.
But Mr Sims, writing in his roles as head of West Midlands Police and an official with the Association of Chief Police Officers, called for the limit to be reduced, which would effectively allow bodies to reject more FOI requests.
Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister who was in power when the FOI Act became law, has described the legislation “one of the greatest mistakes I made in office” because it made it harder for politicians and officials to have private and honest discussions.
But MPs gave the complaints short shrift. The Commons Justice Committee said that public bodies could save money by improving the way they dealt with requests instead.
In written evidence submitted to the inquiry, Birmingham City Council said that the number of requests it receives has shot up from 355 in 2006 to 1521 last year. The number increased by 347 between 2010 and 2011 alone.
Furthermore, each request typically contained more than one question, and on average requests included more than four.
A study in 2009 had estimated that each request cost the authority between £250 and £300 to deal with, the council said.
The council said that the Act was “invaluable in respect of allowing public bodies to be accountable to the public they serve” – but warned: “There is no link between the costs of dealing with the request and the requestor.”
The authority said some individuals “have made, across the public sector, hundreds of requests, costing the public sector tens of thousands of pounds, without the requestor making any financial contribution towards the costs of the request.”
It added: “Whilst Birmingham City Council agrees that transparency and accountability are vital, this has to be balanced that against the ever increasing levels of requests being received.
“It should be recognised in ensuring accountable and transparent government there is an increasing demand for information. This demand should be adequately resourced and the additional cost to the local authority acknowledged.
“One possibility would be to adopt the charging regime for subject access requests, ie levying a flat rate initial fee of eg £25 per request.
“This would force requestors to moderate their requests to the information they need, rather than sending the same request to hundreds of public authorities, each of which would have to search or respond to the request or direct them to the council website if the information has been published.”
Mr Sims also called for changes designed to cut the number of requests for information one individual could make.
He suggested the limit public bodies were obliged to spend answering requests should be reduced ––and the sum should be calculated per person instead of per request, so that any individual who made multiple requests would soon hit the limit.
He said in a written submission: “The cost of a single FOI request is set too high. Theoretically the Act is impossible to comply with, as anyone can make an endless number of requests, with no realistic judgement of what is possible to achieve.
“The costs of each FOI should be reduced and there should be the option of aggregating the costs of requests on different subjects from the same requester.”
The suggestions received little sympathy from MPs.
Sir Alan Beith, Chair of the Commons Justice Committee, said: “Evidence we have seen suggests that reducing the cost of FOI can be achieved if the way public authorities deal with requests is well-thought through.
“Complaints about the cost of FoI will ring hollow when made by public authorities which have failed to invest the time and effort needed to create an efficient freedom of information scheme.”