Cost limits planned for Freedom of Information requests

Tynwald buildings, Douglas

Tynwald buildings, Douglas

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Cost limits could be placed on Freedom of Information requests.

Policy and Reform Minister John Shimmin told last week’s Tynwald sitting that there will be a public consultation on proposals to introduce a cost limit.

He said the average request took 15 hours to deal with, at a cost of £375.

But the most expensive so far had already taken more than 60 hours, at a cost of £1,500, and was still continuing.

Mr Shimmin told members: ‘We have endeavoured to make sure a balance is struck in the FOI regime introduced.

‘However, learning from both the pilot phase and experiences of other jurisdictions’ evidence there is a need to provide some level of protection against the burden caused by the time taken to respond to some Freedom of Information requests.

‘Consequently over the coming weeks we will hold a public consultation on proposals to introduce a cost limit for requests, above which public authorities can refuse to answer them.’

FOI was introduced in February this year and initially piloted in the Cabinet Office and the Department of Environment, Food and Agriculture. Since then, 40 FOI requests have been submitted.

Mr Shimmin said it been encouraging to see island residents exercising rights given to them by the Act and the Council of Ministers remained committed to rolling it out across the remaining government departments, the information commissioner and Tynwald and its branches from January 1 next year.

But he said the phased introduction of the Act has identified ‘areas for refinement’ needed ahead of this further roll-out.

He said: ‘The pilot has also been an opportunity to understand the impact on government of responding to FOI requests.

‘There has been a significant variety in the requests submitted; some have been straightforward requests for information, whilst others have been lengthy, complex and relating to sensitive matters. Correspondingly the amount of time spent in answering each request has varied greatly.’

‘While the Act permits for the burden on public authorities to be managed by way of the vexatious provisions, the departments have so far been unwilling to do this,’ he added.

Peel resident Trevor Cowin, a regular contributor to this newspaper’s letters page, has made more FOI requests than anyone else.

He insists he is not a vexatious complainant and says he will continue to challenge decisions of departments. And he says his persistence had paid off – one of his FOI requests resulted in front page story in the Examiner about the introduction of the sewerage rate.

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