The issue of rising costs associated with responding to Freedom of Information requests has raised its head again – this time at the Highlands and Islands police force in Northern Scotland.
According to the Aberdeen Press and Journal, a member of the Police authority up there, Lochaber councillor Donald Cameron is concerned about the rising cost of dealing with requests.
The number of FoI requests to the force had increased by 41% and cost £160,000 in the past year. The 2,061 FoI inquiries received by the force in 2009 was almost six times the number submitted to NHS Highland in the period.
According to the paper, Cllr Cameron wondered if any information requested by FoI inquisitors was openly available or “unnecessarily kept back,” adding to the bill.
In other words, if the police were more upfront in the first place, then perhaps requests would fall.
Good idea – then he spoilt it.
He was also keen to know if “persistent requesters” could be blacklisted in future to avoid unnecessary expense, the paper said.
The answer, regardless of whether in Scotland or in England and Wales, the answer is no. FOI officers are supposed to be applicant blind. The only time they can reject a request outside of the multiple exemptions is if they feel a requester is being vexatious.
Blacklisting people simply because they ask a lot of questions would be against the principle of being applicant blind. However, the fact the police record statistics on how many FOI requests come from the public and how many come from the Press – it’s a50/50 split – strikes me as rather odd. To be truly applicant blind, you wouldn’t keep such statistics.
Fortunately, the powers that be at this force have rejected the idea of a blacklist. But perhaps they should also stop their officers from recording sources of FOI requests. Not only does it waste someone’s time, it also skews the argument about FOI within a public body. Of course journalists will make up the largest category of FOI requests – but they’ll often be asking questions which would otherwise be asked in duplicate if journalists were somehow blacklisted.
£160,000 in the scheme of things isn’t that much money for an authority like this police force. And rather than question the motives of those asking for information, how about more authorities look to see if they could actually make it easier to get information – either, as the councillor suggested, by being more open by default, or by having a good look at the way they store information internally in the first place. The FOI Act makes it easy to deny release of information – questioning the merits of journalists using it simply doesn’t stack up