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New powers for the Freedom of Information Act

Several important changes to the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) were proposed by Francis Maude in a consultation document yesterday, as the coalition continued its transparency drive.

The series of proposals from Frances Maude, the minister for the cabinet office, will now be discussed with key government and information stakeholders, although anyone is welcome to leave feedback.

Lucas Amin, a director of Request Initiative, said today: “We welcome the proposals, which seem to be evolutionary, and will be offering some of our thoughts to Francis Maude. Our only concern, although it has not been specifically mentioned, is that the reform of the fees regulations could include the implementation of a nominal, per-request fee.

“In 2003, 6 years after Ireland had introduced its Freedom of Information Act, an amendment was passed that permitted public bodies to charge for information. Request rates dropped significantly and the civic engagement that the act fostered began to wane.”

Maude told The Guardian: “The UK government is determined to have the most ambitious open data agenda of any government in the world. But we want to embed this approach throughout the public service and we want to hear from people about how they think we should do this.”

The key points are as follows:

- Lifting the time limit to prevent requests being refused on the basis that they will take an information officer more than 18/24 hours to respond.

- Reforming the fees regulations that would include increasing the upper cost threshold to £1000. Presumably this means the upper time limit for requests would be 40 hours as responding to a request is costed at £25p/h.

- Reviewing the powers of the Information Commissioner and asking whether the office has enough power to enforce the act.

- Creating a time limit for internal reviews

Maude’s proposals echo the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham’s address at the annual conference of Data Protection and Freedom of Information Officers in March this year.

Notably, Graham said that the government (and ICO) wants to move to a culture of openness, rather than compliance, in which information is voluntarily and proactively published.

You can imagine information officers may be grimacing at the prospect of relaxed time and cost limits. But the goal of these proposed amendments is to encourage government to store, use and publish information in more intuitive and useful ways, circumventing the need for Freedom of Information requests.

It’s an ambitious plan and will require careful forethought to work effectively.

Several groups will be preparing feedback. Data analysts have stressed the need for raw format publishing that ensures information is compatible with software while Foi man, an information officer and blogger, has posted his generally positive response here.

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