East Lothian Council in bid to charge for FOI requests to reduce number submitted

EAST Lothian Council is urging the Scottish Government to let it charge people who put in Freedom of Information (FOI) requests in a bid to reduce the number submitted.

Saturday, 2nd November 2019, 3:41 pm
East Lothian Council's John Muir House in Haddington. Picture: Jon Savage
East Lothian Council's John Muir House in Haddington. Picture: Jon Savage

The council was taken to task by the Scottish Information Commissioner last year over its failure to respond to FOI requests within the time limit set.

Now it has asked a Holyrood committee set up to review FOI legislation to let it charge for staff hours involved in responding to requests.

In a submission to the Scottish Government post legislative scrutiny committee, the council says that the burden on already-
stretched resources can be 
“overwhelming”.

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Despite acknowledging that the legislation “provides a means of holding public bodies to account to ensure that they act in the public interest”, the council adds: “Some applicants use this as a free research facility for their own personal or financial advantage for example journalists, solicitors, businesses and students.”

The council also asks that if the committee decides not to remove the current threshold which only allows charges if the cost of an FOI is above £100, it should consider reducing the threshold for press requests or commercial operators.

Last year, East Lothian Council dealt with 1,250 FOI requests but only 35 per cent were answered within the 20 working day timescale – 44 per cent were from the public, with 24 per cent from businesses and 14 per cent from the press.

The Scottish Information Commissioner intervened last October as the rate of response fell and measures were introduced to address the issue.

So far this year, the council says it has dealt with 1,143 inquiries, estimating a total cost of £70,562 with the average cost of a single inquiry at £61.73.

A council spokesperson said: “We are aware that the quantity of requests made is having a huge impact on officers diverting them from other core duties.

“The council’s position is that it supports FOI but considers the current position means that the council taxpayers subsidise this service and it would be fairer if the people who want the information paid for the time it takes to produce it in the same way as happens for environmental requests.

“The council’s submission only asked that the legislation for FOI should allow charging in the same way.”

East Lothian Council is one of only five local authorities to submit a response to the current inquiry into the current FOI legislation and the only one to suggest being allowed to charge journalists.

The National Union of Journalists, in its submission, raised concerns that members of the press were subject to unjustifiable delays as highlighted in a recent report by the Scottish Information Commissioner. They said: “In seeking Freedom of Information requests, journalists are acting on behalf of the public and should not be treated as second-class citizens.”

The inquiry is ongoing.