Ministers fear 'burdens' from freedom of information
25 January 2013
Demands to disclose material under freedom of information laws are placing multi-million pound "burdens" on public authorities, the government has warned, with the government now set to target "industrial users" of the legislation.
Whitehall had been hit with 47,000 requests under the Freedom of Information Act during 2011 – costing £8.5m in staff time alone, justice minister Helen Grant told MPs in a Westminster Hall debate.
With local authorities also affected, she said the government would now "aim to focus our efforts on the disproportionate burdens placed on public authorities by what we call industrial users of the [Freedom of Information] Act".
The government had faced criticism for blocking requests for information made under the act, with the ministerial veto being exercised several times already by the coalition to block orders from the Information Commissioner and information tribunals.
Ministers claim to be creating the most open government in the world and have both repeatedly and strongly emphasised the transparency implications of their open data initiative.
Grant nevertheless conceded in the debate that the government's transparency agenda was "no substitute for" the FoI Act, which her government's transparency policy would "certainly not diminish.
Other ministers have however indicated that FoI may become unnecessary. In July last year Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said: "I'd like to make freedom of information redundant
, by pushing out so much data that people won't have to ask for it."
This approach to transparency has faced criticism from the most influential of politicians. Margaret Hodge
, who chairs the Commons Public Accounts Committee, told Public Servant magazine that there was "a difference between releasing data and ensuring the data is relevant, understandable and useful".
She had been facing mounting obstacles in obtaining the data necessary to follow the taxpayers' pound.
In the same debate that saw Grant complain of FoI burdens, Dwyfor Meirionnydd MP Elfyn Llwyd said the costs were "greatly outweighed, although not always, by the transparency and better accountability of those who make decisions that affect the public's daily life".
"Freedom of information requests may lead indirectly to a reduction of costs because public authorities are now fully aware of the risk of exposure if they misuse funds," he said.