Luke Blair: Freedom of Information is just a burden

The heavy burden imposed by the Freedom of information Act on the public sector was really brought home to me last week.

Luke Blair: feeling burden of FOI
Luke Blair: feeling burden of FOI
A hard-pressed NHS communications manager told me her Primary Care Trust was currently handling some 123 FOI requests. These included one asking ‘how much has been spent on champagne and caviar’ and another on the number of ‘hauntings’ the PCT has had.

I accept these are particularly nonsensical FOIs and do not take long to handle (in case you wondered, the answer in both cases was ‘none’).  And it would be quite funny if that were the end of it.

But it is not – it is the tip of the iceberg and, as I write this, thousands of public officials, many of them in ‘communications’, are toiling away to comply with FOI requests on everything from taxi receipts and toilet paper to hair transplants and homeopathic remedies.

I wonder if this is what the creators of the FOI legislation originally had in mind? I wonder if they had any idea how much it would all cost, and to what effect?

Can FOI alone really claim to have resulted in any major piece of democracy-changing news, data or uncovering of corruption in the decade since it was created?  

I realise there are exceptions for ‘vexatious requests’ – such as how many eligible bachelors a police force employs (yes, this was another real one).  

But we all know the exceptions are worked around so that the Act – like human rights legislation – becomes a sledgehammer to crack a nut, to complain about parking tickets, say.  

The government has put the cost of administering FOI requests at £35m a year. So that’s £350m since it came into force and if the public sector wanted to make an entirely sensible cut by scrapping something that currently has no impact except to gum up offices which should be doing better things with their time, I would look at the FOI Act.

Freedom of Information has simply made us slaves to the bureaucracy needed to administer it.

Luke Blair is a director at London Communications Agency

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