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14 February 2012

Coalition considers charging for FoI requests

Is the government really committed to open data?

By George Eaton

While Tom Watson has urged Labour to endorse an expansion of Freedom of Information in its next manifesto, the government is heading in the opposite direction.

In a submission to the Commons justice committee, the Ministry of Justice has floated the idea of charging people for FoI requests. It’s an odd move given the coalition’s apparent commitment to open data and its ambition to be the “most transparent government in the world“.

Andy Slaughter, the shadow justice minister, has neatly dubbed it a “a tax on transparency”.

He commented:

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It’s alarming that this Tory-led government is looking at introducing a charge for submitting Freedom of Information requests. Labour introduced Freedom of Information legislation as a means of opening up the public sector and improving transparency in government. A charge payable for each freedom of information request is nothing less than a tax on transparency.

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Freedom of Information is a step towards healthy governance. It permits scrutiny of those in power in central and local government and devolved administrations. Introducing a charge is a potential backward step, and will unravel Labour’s drive to open up the public sector to wider scrutiny.

Then again, given that Tony Blair, the man George Osborne refers to as “the master”, named the FoI act as one of his biggest regrets in A Journey, perhaps it’s no surprise that his “heirs” are seeking to water it down.