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Last Updated: Sunday, 30 July 2006, 09:39 GMT 10:39 UK
Blocks to openness law considered
Filing cabinet
There were more than 38,000 FOI requests in the first year of the law
The government is considering making changes to Freedom of Information laws to deter "vexatious" inquiries.

Ministers reportedly want to block difficult requests made under the laws, which have been in place for 18 months.

The Sunday Times published details of what it said was a leaked cabinet paper which suggests declining difficult requests on cost grounds.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs said there was "no desire" to deter "genuine" information requests.

'Deterrent effect'

The document carried in the newspaper is said to have been prepared by Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs Lord Falconer for circulation to ministers and is dated 17 July.

It apparently suggests that a flat-rate fee could be charged for requests under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, which is aimed at making public bodies more open.

This would have a "deterrent effect" and "inhibit serial requesters".

We are keen to stop lots of officials who should be focusing on policy spending their time reading lots of documents that are of no interest to anybody
Lord Falconer

Methods for calculating the cost of meeting requests could also be altered, making it easier to argue they breached the top limits for compliance, it says.

A Department for Constitutional Affairs spokeswoman said: "We said we would review fees and a proper review covers everything.

"However, it is unlikely that there will be a flat rate for Freedom of Information requests."

Lord Falconer said the government was "not keen" to stop people obtaining information that could embarrass the government.

"What you find is that some requests ask for a list of files, then say 'could you disclose all of the files', unaware of what's in them and simply keen to have a fishing exercise," he told the BBC's News 24 Sunday programme.

"We are keen to stop lots and lots of officials who should be focusing on policy spending their time reading lots and lots of documents that are of no interest to anybody."

Any attempt to limit the use of the FOI Act is likely to be met with fierce political opposition.

Last month a cross-party group of MPs condemned plans to charge for requests and said frivolous inquiries could be dealt with using existing laws.

Royal plane costs

Official figures reveal there were more than 38,000 FOI requests in the act's first year of operation.

Requests are normally free at present, although public bodies can charge a fee if the cost of compiling a response is unusually high.

Central government departments are entitled to refuse a request if the cost is more than 600. The limit for local authorities is 450.

Ministers have been forced into a number of disclosures since the FOI Act came into force in January last year.

Earlier this month Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott came under renewed pressure when details emerged of his department's involvement with casino policy while he was meeting billionaire Dome owner Philip Anschutz.

And Tony Blair was forced to reveal the bill of more than 500,000 which he incurred using the royal plane for holiday flights.

The FOI Act says that any person can request information from a public body and have that information given to them, subject to certain exemptions.

This legislation covers public bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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