UK Committee Won’t Propose Higher Fees, Guardian Says

9 July 2012

The United Kingdom parliamentary committee examining the freedom of information is expected to announce its conclusions July 26, and The Guardian is reporting that the outcome won’t be as scary as FOI activists feared.

Relying on sources, The Guardian reports, “Pressure from former senior Labour figures, including Tony Blair and Jack Straw, as well as Whitehall mandarins, to “turn back the clock” on freedom of information legislation has been decisively rejected by an all-party group of MPs.”

The select committee is going to “deplore” Blair’s refusal the testify, but “will also reject the idea of charging for FoI requests, arguing that any blanket charges that would start to cover the costs would be prohibitively high.”

“The MPs do, however, back a two-hour cut to the 18-hour time limit after which a public body can impose a one-off charge to cover the cost of the extra work of dealing with a request. The charge levied after the time limit is passed is left to the discretion of the public body,” according to the paper.

In addition, the article says:

The committee, chaired by the senior Liberal Democrat Sir Alan Beith, is to come down against creating a sweeping exemption from FoI legislation for information used in Whitehall policy formulation and development. The MPs also reject weakening the FoI law on the release of information that would prejudice collective ministerial responsibility, or inhibit the frank exchange of views within the government. At present the law includes an exemption to ensure there is a “safe space” for ministers and civil servants to operate, but material that passes a public interest test can be ordered to be released.

Maude Says `I’d like to make FOI redundant’

In a related comment July 4, Cabinet Office minister said he hopes open data will remove the need for the Freedom of Information Act because “people won’t have to ask.” The UK recently announced a new open data white paper. (See FreedomInfo.org report,)

“I’d like to make Freedom of Information redundant, by pushing out so much [open] data that people won’t have to ask for it,” he said, according to an Information Age report.

In a remark about the value of consistent data from agencies, he said, “Comparability is the handmaiden of accountability, which is one of the reasons why it’s resisted,” he added. “Some parts of government are unwilling or unable to provide data in common definitions.”

Maude criticized laws that prevent government departments from sharing citizen’s personal data, and made specific reference to attempts to fight fraud. “Our attempts to cut down on debt fraud are undermined by seemingly contradictory legal constraints. There are 86 legal gateways that limit data sharing between debt agencies. We want a single legislative framework that allows sharing of data on debtors.”

He spoke at an event concerning the launch of a report on “big data” by Policy Exchange recommending a “Code for Responsible Analytics.” It also recommended creation of an “elite data team.”

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