FOI law may be phased in to minimise costs

Tynwald buildings, Douglas

Tynwald buildings, Douglas

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Freedom of Information legislation could be phased in to keep upfront costs to a minimum, Chief Minister Allan Bell told MHKs.

In a written response to a House of Keys question by Bill Henderson (Douglas North), Mr Bell said he believed costs should be capped to a maximum of £500,000 a year.

A six-week public consultation on proposed Freedom of Information legislation started on Monday this week with a deadline for submission of responses set at March 21.

But to limit administration and costs, the proposed FOI regime will only apply to information since the start of the current government in October 2011, to prevent officer time being spent going back through historic records. It will also only be available to island residents, to block ‘round robin’ FOI requests from UK companies which gather and sell information about public authorities.

And its introduction will be phased in across the range of public bodies - eg departments, statutory boards and local authorites.

Mr Bell said: ‘Given that a Freedom of Information Act is demand led it is extremely difficult to accurately predict the cost of implementation.’

He said he had previously told the Keys that he estimated that an overall limit on the cost of implementation may be up to £500,000 per year for the initial stages – and that he considered that sum should not to be exceeded within any financial year.

The Chief Minister pointed out these estimated costs are subject to a number of variables including how many complex requests will be received or how many may progress to an appeal stage.

The current Code of Practice will continue to be available for pre-October 2011 information, for off-Island requests, and for bodies covered by the Code but not yet subject to FOI.

Mr Bell said: ‘Given that access to Government information is already covered by a Code of Practice, which works well, it is anticipated that the type and range of information available under the Act will be broadly similar to what is already available to the public.

‘The fundamental difference is that the Act creates a legally enforceable right to access information and therefore it has to be more prescriptive than the present Code in a number of areas.

He said it would contains exemptions either absolute or qualified (the latter requiring an assessment of public interest) .

Mr Bell said the consultation would provide feedback on the potential implications of the Act, including costs.

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