An exclusive survey of more than 4,000 civil servants has found that the majority would back the introduction of charges for Freedom of Information requests.
Ministers launched an independent review of the FOI act in the summer, with a cross-party commission led by former Treasury permanent secretary Lord Burns asked to consider whether the existing transparency laws allow "safe space" for "frank" discussion of government policy.
But campaigners and media organisations have warned that the commission – which will report on its findings by the end of the year – could be used to curb public access to information held by government bodies, and have questioned the make-up of its panel, which includes figures who have previously expressed scepticism about FOI.
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Ahead of the commission's report, Civil Service World/Dods Research asked 4,435 officials across government, and at all grades, whether they felt they had enough resources in their departments to handle FOI requests and whether they would back the introduction of charges. More than 1,000 civil servants also gave their detailed views on how they felt Freedom of Information could be improved, with the answers providing an insight into the broad range of opinion on the pros and cons of the transparency law across government.
Just over half (50.12%) of those asked said they would support charging for FOI releases, a move currently under consideration by the cross-party review. Thirty-six percent were opposed to bringing in charges, while 12% said they did not know whether fees should be brought in.
At present, public bodies covered by the act cannot charge a fee for processing standard requests. But they are allowed to charge for requests which they believe would cost more than the "acceptable limit" of £600 in central government and £450 for local and other bodies. Last month the commission’s call for evidence asked whether “controls" including fees were needed "to reduce the burden of FOI on public authorities".
On the issue of charging, some civil servants drew a distinction between the use of the act by journalists and members of the wider public, with a number expressing concern about the use of the law for journalistic “fishing expeditions”.
“Too often the FOI act is used to support lazy journalism or inquisitive academics,” said one Grade 7 civil servant at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. "I think that FOI requests by members of the public should remain free, but there should be a 'corporate' charge for journalists and other organisations. The money raised could be used to help fund specialist units in government to deal with FOI requests, thereby releasing the pressure on front-line officers."
"FOI is currently purpose-blind," a Home Office policy official at the same grade told us. "We should be able to charge for requests from the media to do their work for them."
A senior executive officer at the Department for Work and Pensions said: "You must let people have access to official information in the interests of transparency, but not tie up huge amounts of resources to answer 'fishing' expeditions trying to dig up dirt without any direction or possible frivolous requests."
There was also some concern among those CSW spoke to about the use of the act by private companies – including marketing companies and those hoping to bid for government contracts.
"Commercial organisations using the information for profit-related activities should be charged relative to the amount of work required for the information," said a senior executive officer from the Skills Funding Agency. "Otherwise we run the risk of harming the general running of organisations providing the information by taking up staff numbers to answer FOIs."
One higher executive officer from the Ministry of Defence said: "Private citizens should have good access to appropriate info but we have had experience of consultants trying to use FOI to obtain commercially sensitive data in order to promote their own business."
“The public should expect transparency"
Other civil servants spoke out in favour of the act in its current form, however, with one finance official working at Grade 7 in the DWP saying FOI legislation was "fairly balanced on either side for those asking questions and those answering them".
A civil servant working for the Northern Ireland administration said officials should “stop viewing FOI as an imposition, and start viewing it as an opportunity to showcase what we are doing”.
They added: “We are all paid out of the public purse and the public should expect transparency. Simply – if you are doing something on government time that you are ashamed of, or would rather no one knew about, then maybe you should stop.”
Some officials called for the act to be strengthened – with its remit extended so that the public can glean information about private sector contractors. Ministers have so far shied away from such a move, with the Cabinet Office instead calling on outsourcing firms to adopt a voluntary "presumption in favour of disclosure" on public contracts.
One policy official in the Scottish government said the act should be "applicable to all bodies, including charities", while a Grade 6 civil servant at the National Offender Management Service said: "Open up FOI to private firms running services for the public sector such as the MOJ, Home Office and NHS."
Meanwhile, a Grade 6 official at the Treasury called for “greater sanctions for non-compliance” with the act to try and focus minds on the importance of the transparency law.
"Civil servants should err on the side of being open, and stand up to ministers and senior officials more when the latter seek to suppress ‘embarrassing’ information,” they said.
Civil servants were also asked whether they felt their departments had enough resources to deal with FOI requests – with 41% saying they believed they had the right level of support, and just over a fifth (20.3%) saying they did not. The rest said they did not know or preferred not to say.
According to the latest figures, government departments received almost 13,000 FOI requests in the first quarter of 2015. Figures from the Ministry of Justice, which recently handed over responsibility for Freedom of Information policy to the Cabinet Office, show there has been a 61% rise in the number of FOI requests since the start of 2006.
There were a number of calls from those CSW asked for a central government resource to help departments deal more effectively with those FOI requests.
"They would need access to all systems but this would ensure all items are sent and sent on time," said one higher executive officer at the Ministry of Justice.
A DWP official at the same grade suggested a “central database of available published documents” which they argued would help requesters know what was already in the public domain “rather than getting numerous staff involved in locating the documents”.
They added: “If the information is available for all to see following a request it should be more easily accessible to obtain rather than having to make a request.”
A higher executive officer at the Department of Health said all civil servants "should receive comprehensive training on what FOIs are and how they are meant to be responded to” when they first joined the workforce.
"Given that this is something across all government departments, central resources should be committed to this to ensure that we are complying with the requirements in the most effective and efficient way possible,” the official added. "I believe this would also help to improve public record management as the two are closely linked."
FOI – which has been used by journalists on major stories including the MPs’ expenses scandal and the publication of letters between Prince Charles and government ministers – has drawn criticism from some senior government figures since it was brought into force in 2005, with those who have questioned the act arguing that it has limited the space for honest policy discussion.
Tony Blair, whose government introduced the Act, later disowned it, saying he had been a “naïve, foolish, irresponsible, nincompoop” to bring the transparency law into force. Meanwhile, Jack Straw – the Labour former foreign secretary who sits on the cross-party panel reviewing the act – has said he believes FOI in its current form is “wholly inadequate” in “conception and implementation”.
Former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell was also critical of FOI during his time as the UK’s most senior civil servant, saying it had had a "very negative impact on the freedom of policy discussions” and had undermined the ability of ministers and officials to say “without fear or favour” that they disagreed with a policy position.
A 2012 review of the Freedom of Information act by MPs was unable to conclude "with any certainty” that FOI had had a "chilling effect” on decision-making, although it did acknowledge that there were concerns about the legislation at the top of government.
"We see no reason why former senior ministers and officials in particular would flag this up as a concern if they did not genuinely believe it to be so, and we think their views are of value,” the justice select committee said.
"However, so too of value is the increased openness introduced by the act and, especially, the power of individuals to exercise their right to information proactively, rather than having public authorities decide what they will disclose, when and to whom, even when acting with the best intentions."
The new commission launched by ministers over the summer will look specifically at whether the exemptions to protect policymaking under current FOI rules are adequate.
Section 35 of the act – a qualified exemption – is already aimed at protecting the policy-making process. Officials deciding whether or not to release documents must, according to MoJ guidance, weigh the "important public interest in disclosure of information about the process of government policy formulation" against the "powerful public interest in ensuring that there is a space within which ministers and officials are able to discuss policy options and delivery, freely and frankly".
The 2012 report by MPs also cautioned against trying to draw a distinction between information requests submitted by the wider public and from commercial organisations or the press, saying it would be "difficult, if not impossible" to charge some requesters without undermining the principle of requester blindness.
"While we recognise that there is an economic argument in favour of the freedom of information regime being significantly or wholly self-funding, fees at a level high enough to recoup costs would deter requests with a strong public interest and would defeat the purposes of the act, while fees introduced for commercial and media organisations could be circumvented,” the committee said.
The new commission has said it will revisit that argument, weighing up the "balance between transparency and the burden of the act on public authorities”. Its public consultation on FOI runs until November 20.
More responses to CSW’s question: "Are there any other ways you believe the Freedom of Information Act could be improved?"
“I think the cost limit is low. £600 represents a member of my team being tied up with a request for several days - the opportunity cost of that now, since we've reduced staff to a minimum, is significant, as other work has to stop” – senior civil servant at the Department for Education
“[It’s] difficult. The principle of FOI is extremely important, although it has ended up putting a disproportionate amount of pressure on government departments to provide data. I am not familiar enough with the act to assess if a change would make the required amends. But I think a quick and simple improvement would be to publish far more government data and put the emphasis on the enquirer to find the information they want rather than have civil servants compile and issue it” – senior executive officer at the Home Office
“Ensure that all colleagues that hold data ensure it is readily accessible should an FOI come in. Also, the public have the right to request information freely – the suggestion to charge for this in the previous question would essentially reduce the accountability public servants have for the work we do which is funded by our taxpayers” – higher executive officer at the Department for Education
“Get rid of it” – Grade 7 civil servant at the Treasury
“I am committed to FOI and so any modifications should not result in restrictions. Clearer guidance around what is out of scope of the act may be helpful in managing expectations and to protect the duty to provide advice to ministers without risk” – senior executive officer at the National Offender Management Service
“I don't think you should have to pay – this would only disincentivise individuals rather than big outlets. Maybe ration requests? Or [introduce] some kind of licensing for news outlets” – Grade 6 official at HM Revenue and Customs
“Stop commercial organisations from submitting multiple requests in order to find out as much as possible about defence business (and help them submit cheaper tenders...)” – civil servant (grade not given) working at the Ministry of Defence Police and Guarding Agency
"We do need a better way to filter out frivolous and mischievous requests, which take up a lot of time" – senior civil servant at the Department for Transport
"Along with parliamentary questions, show the cost to the public purse. All too often, requesters don't realise the resource and cost burden these requests take" – Grade 7 statistician at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
"I think there should be different categories – if [the] enquirer is from a political party, or the material will be used to make profit (i.e. newspapers) there should be a charge, as the time taken to find info adds to the burden on vastly reduced staff numbers who are already struggling" – senior executive officer at the Department of Health
“I don't think [there should be charges] for people who make one or two requests, but so many FoI requests are made by the Opposition - and it's these that take the time and resource. The Tories did it under the Labour government, and Labour did it under the last government. It's one thing to hold a government to account, but it seems an openly admitted secret that part of the reason for doing this is to use up resource and impede the serving government. It's madness” – Grade 7 official at the Department for Communities and Local Government
"A huge number of requests for information are for things that are already in the public domain or for information that can be derived from information in the public domain. Making it easier for people to locate information and determine what is available for themselves would decrease the burden on departments to respond to requests. It's currently very difficult for people to find information or even which department might hold it"– senior executive officer, The National Archives