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Freedom of Information charges to be considered by commission

Published 09/10/2015

The publication of letters by the Prince of Wales was one Freedom of Information battle
The publication of letters by the Prince of Wales was one Freedom of Information battle

The possibility of charging people to submit Freedom of Information requests will be considered by an independent commission established by the Government to decide if existing legislation is fit for purpose.

The issue of fees will be examined by the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information as part of a wider look at the "burden" the act places on public authorities.

The commission today launched a public call for evidence after it was set up in July this year to review the FOI Act which came into effect in 2000.

The review will also examine whether cabinet ministers should be allowed to veto the publication of sensitive material as they have done in the past, perhaps most notably in relation to correspondence between Prince Charles and the government.

The commission is being chaired by Lord Burns and includes former Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw, former Conservative leader Lord Howard of Lympne, Lord Carlile of Berriew and Dame Patricia Hodgson.

A report on the commission's findings was earmarked to be published by the end of November this year.

However, the commission is understood to have told the Government that the deadline will need to be pushed back.

The public call for evidence will run for six weeks and will come to a close on November 20.

The commission is then aiming to have finalised its report by the time Parliament rises on December 17.

Concerns have been raised about the membership of the commission due to the absence of any FOI campaigners.

There have also been worries expressed about the scope of the review.

The commission's focus is on whether the FOI Act is working effectively.

Meanwhile, concerns have been voiced in Whitehall previously that the act could make some officials "less candid" with government ministers for fear that their correspondence could later be published.

Any changes recommended by the commission and adopted by the Government would have to make their way through Parliament before becoming law.

The commission intends to publish most of the evidence it receives, but perhaps not all, to avoid duplication.

The commission has not ruled out taking some evidence in public.

Lord Burns said: "Freedom of Information is an area of considerable public interest and we want to hear the views of as many people as possible, which is why we are announcing this public call for evidence.

"The commission is an independent body, with no pre-determined view, and is interested in gathering as much objective evidence as possible on the questions posed in the call for evidence."

Maurice Franke l, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, told the Press Association: "They are looking at a very wide range of potential restrictions to the act, making it harder to obtain internal discussions, new restrictions on access to cabinet material, possible restrictions on access to risk registers."

On the possibility of charging for FOI requests, Mr Frankel said: "We would be very worried about that. For most people a single charge for a single request might not be a problem, except for people on low incomes.

"But the problem is that many people legitimately need to make more than a single request.

"It would make the FOI Act inaccessible for individual requesters and small and medium organisations as well as for freelance journalists."

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