The proportion of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests fully refused on cost grounds by central government departments and organisations rose from 6% in 2010 to 14% in the first three quarters of 2019.
The findings, based on data published by the Cabinet Office on 466,000 requests made between January 2010 and September 2019, show that cost-based refusals now outnumber those cumulatively made under the range of 23 specific exemptions, the most common being inclusion of personal information, which accounted for 13.6% of refusals in data so far published for last year. This echoes similar analysis by the Institute for Government think tank (see graph below) focused only on the main departments, which has shown cost limit refusals overtaking specific exemptions during the last two years.
According to the Cabinet Office data for January to September 2019, the Crown Prosecution Service turned down 32% of requests on the basis of cost during this period, more than any other central government department or organisation. The CPS said this is partly due to the nature of many of the requests it receives and the way its systems work.
“We receive a large number of FoI requests every year and a highly trained team work to provide full and timely responses in line with our responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act,” a spokesperson said.
“Many requests centre around casework outcomes for specific offences and this information can only be obtained by manually reviewing thousands of case files. These searches are very time-consuming and so many are exempt under cost grounds.”
The spokesperson added that people who are not happy with such a decision can request an internal review as well as involve the Information Commissioner’s Office.
The CPS was followed by the Department for International Development, which refused 29% of requests on cost grounds. The department has 26 overseas offices, increasing the potential cost of requests that would require input from some or all of them. “We are fully committed to transparency and always comply with the legal requirements of the Freedom of Information Act,” said a spokesperson.
From January 2010 to September 2019, the Ministry of Justice was the central government organisation citing costs the most often, using it to turn down 23% of requests. It did so for 22% of requests in the first three quarters of 2019. “We always provide answers when we can, while keeping the cost to the taxpayer in mind,” a spokesperson said.
Central government organisations, along with parliament and the armed forces, can turn down FoI requests if they estimate that it will cost them more than £600 to response, with a limit of £450 for other parts of the public sector.
ICO guidance says that staff or contractor time must be valued at £25 an hour, meaning that unless there are other costs the central government limit is effectively 24 hours of work. Organisations that refuse a request for cost reasons are obliged to provide advice on how it could be refined to fall within the limit.
An ICO spokesperson said: “We are aware of the latest statistics published by the Institute for Government and are considering the findings with interest. It’s important that people have trust and confidence that the requests they make to government departments will be handled in line with the law. As the regulator, we expect that too.
“Where people believe this hasn’t happened, they can complain to us and we’ll investigate.”
Cost-based refusals are a major contributor to an overall rise in the number of FoI requests denied. Gavin Freeguard, programme director for data and digital at the Institute for Government, said fewer resources are likely to play a part. Research by the institute in 2019 found that, over the previous three years, the Home Office had reduced the number of staff dealing with FoIs from 24 to 18.
The Department for Education had increased its team from five in 2010 to six, but the volume of requests had nearly tripled over that time.
Freeguard said those in government argue that, with departments publishing more information and data voluntarily, FoI is increasingly used to ask for more complex and sensitive material.
But he added: “A number of campaigners have argued that there will be no cost to departments not complying with FoI without stronger action from the ICO.”
Poor information management may be helping to drive refusals based specifically on cost, Freeguard said. If departments have systems that can search all their information effectively and quickly, they have less justification for citing the cost-limit.
“Finding the information that you need when it’s not well-structured is much more difficult,” he added.