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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 May 2007, 13:11 GMT 14:11 UK
Bid to put off info time-wasters
Files
Some organisations are bombarded with FOI Act queries
The Information Commissioner wants to deter "pointless and mischievous" requests to public bodies under the Freedom of Information Act.

Richard Thomas said people should act with "restraint" as such requests were jeopardising the act's reputation.

He cited a request to the Foreign Office on the amount spent on Ferrero Rocher chocolate and one on eligible bachelors in the Hampshire police.

But he also said authorities should be more robust in rejecting such requests.

More than 100,000 public bodies, including government departments, councils, the NHS, and universities, have been subject to potential FoI requests since 2005.

'Unwelcome toddler'

"Wresting information from government and other bodies has the potential to damage trust between the state and the people," Mr Thomas told the annual FoI conference.

Richard Thomas
Mr Thomas will say safeguards are in place

"But, by the same measure, those making requests must act responsibly and with restraint."

Mr Thomas said FoI should not be regarded as a threat even when it reveals information that is embarrassing or uncomfortable.

He urged public bodies to adopt a positive approach to openness and said the law was delivering benefits, although he did describe it as "a vigorous, noisy, and sometimes unwelcome toddler".

Downing St toilet paper

His office is to develop further guidelines to help public bodies to reject "vexatious" requests, as current provisions in the act are under-used.

"A charter for responsible FoI requests will help prevent requests which have no serious purpose or value, impose disproportionate burdens or have the effect of harassing the public body," he said.

He earlier told BBC Radio 4's Today programme of examples such as a request made to Number Ten as to how much toilet paper was used, and a request made to Hampshire Police as to how many eligible bachelors were in the police force.

He said there were "vast numbers" of vexatious queries, but only 40 cases where his office has been asked to rule a public authority was right to exclude them.

You've got to strike some balance between it being free to the public, but not having civil servants...spending a disproportionate amount of time answering the requests
Lord Falconer

The government is currently consulting on whether to restrict the FOI Act, to limit costs.

Requests are already rejected if it costs more than 600 to process them - but Lord Falconer has suggested including the cost of ministers' and officials' time in dealing with requests should be included in that cost.

Campaign for Freedom of Information director Maurice Frankel has said it would make it easier to bury the more "newsworthy", or potentially embarrassing requests, in which ministers are more likely to get involved.

But Lord Falconer told the BBC: "You've got to strike some balance between it being free to the public, but not having civil servants or local authorities or central government spending a disproportionate amount of time answering the requests."

In a separate move, there is a bid to exempt MPs and peers from the Act altogether, which is currently making its way through Parliament.

Tory MP David Maclean says his bill will guarantee the confidentiality of correspondence between MPs and constituents.

But the Lib Dems say it is "deeply hypocritical" for MPs to exempt themselves from a law that applies to every other public body.

Mr Thomas told the BBC he had not received any complaints about private correspondence with an MP being released.


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