Government plans to change the arrangements by which public bodies can charge a fee for responding to FOI requests have added weight to some people's concerns that Ministers are pulling back from the spirit of freedom of information legislation. The Constitutional Affairs Select Committee's recent enquiry into implementation of the FOI Act revealed that the number of requests made to central government has fallen by almost half since the first three months of the FOI Act's implementation in January 2005. Some have attributed this fall to a growing sense of frustration that applicants are not receiving the full responses they would expect, whilst others consider it to be a 'bedding down' to normal request levels as journalists and interest groups settle into a steady pattern of using their rights under the legislation.
Against that background the House of Commons have passed a private members bill which would exempt the House from the FOI regime and the Government has proposed amending the regulations which prescribe the fees which public bodies can charge for responding to requests. The proposed amendments would allow time spent in reading and assessing the requested material before its release to be factored into the cost of response (time which was not previously counted but which would be measured at a flat rate of £25 per hour). This proposal together with the suggestion that separate requests from the same party should be grouped together for the purpose of calculating the cost (even where the separate requests relate to different topics) has raised questions about whether Ministers are pulling back from the original principles of the FOI Act. Similar amendments to the Scottish FOI regime were considered by the Scottish Executive in 2006 but they have yet to publish their conclusions. Responses on the draft UK regulations should be submitted to the Department for Constitutional Affairs by 8 March 2007.