Council cannot charge for Freedom of Information requests|
Aug. 25, 2010
Chester's Council last month sought to build a second wall around itself, however, knocking down its request for payment for Freedom of Information (FoI) requests is much easier than crumbling its famous fortifications.
A press release issued on 16th July announces that the Council does not have the resources to handle the many "bizarre and unusual" requests posed to it under the FoI Act and so it is to begin charging.
"Just how many times has Cheshire West and Chester Council paid a Feng Shui consultant or for a member of staff to attend a Feng Shui course? How many complaints have employees or members of the public made about haunted buildings, ghosts or other paranormal phenomena in its establishments in the last ten years? And how many cheques have been issued by the Council to individuals and organisations between 1 April, 2009 and 31 March, 2010?" are some of the questions put to the Council, it claims, in FoI requests.
Feng Shui is generally seen as a waste of time and money and so using public funds to pay for it would be a demonstration that public money was being wasted. Ditto, cheques are going out of fashion because of their administration costs; cutting down their use would allow savings to be made.
Haunted buildings? Well, that's just interesting, in the same was that the often repeated request to the Ministry of Defence for UFO-sighting data is.
What the Council fail to have understood is that the previous two paragraphs are redundant. FoI requests are to be completely purpose-blind. So, frankly, it has nothing to do with them why someone wants to know about the cost of administering their furniture layout.
Also, it is not to be forgotten that the majority of questions will have been asked of the Council which are genuinely in the public interest and these will have made journalists and the public question the Council's tactics, which can only ever be a good thing.
Cllr Jones--who lacks a first name--claims that many questions are "vexatious". If Jones is able to prove that, then he is under no requirement under the FoI Act to answer those queries.
Government bodies are entitled to charge if the assimilation of the required information takes more than 18 hours or costs more than £600. Below those thresholds, no payment is required. They are also entitled to charge for photocopying and postage. However, with the internet, this is of little relevance as all correspondence is via email with PDFs.
"Council legal finance and solutions staff will be putting together the final details of a charging policy for FoI requests in accordance with the conditions laid down in the Act," the press release ends. So, there will be no charge then.
A footnote to the press release confirms that the Council has not paid a Feng Shui consultant, has not heard about any haunted buildings and received 68,498 cheques last financial year while it despatched 49,608. If you'd like to find out the value and, say, the date of every single one of those cheques, please just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also want to ask them Cllr Jones' first name. Expect a response within 20 working days.
The FoI Act is an incredibly powerful tool for holding government to account and its beauty lies in its accessibility to all. Cheshire West and Chester Council can not be allowed to destroy that.