THESE pages have often reminisced about the first year of the Freedom of Information Act when we needed a wheelbarrow to take away documents from the Town Hall unlocked by requests for information. I remember literally staggering down Eversholt Street with a trolley full of paperwork that the council had given me after one application about a closed down community centre. Maybe that was a little bit much, but with each passing year it gets tougher to use the Act to prise any meaningful information out of publicly-funded institutions. I’m not really interested in how much loo roll Camden Council uses and journalists do need to exercise some responsibility over what they ask for, but sometimes it feels that’s the only kind of info you can access through the system.
The latest blocking tool seems to be the amalgamating of requests regardless of whether they are related in nature and then telling the applicant that it is too expensive and time consuming to process. An example: I asked for info on 1) the number of investigations into potentially fraudulent school place applications in Camden and 2) the number of pupils who transfer between secondary schools in Camden. They were two separate requests for two separate pieces of work for the paper. Both in the public interest. The latter might sound cryptic but it was designed to reveal whether bullying was driving pupils from one school to another.
The council reacted by binding the two requests together as one and warned me that the joint application could run over the fees limit laid down in the Act. It’s a logic, which if extended, could limit a journalist to making one FoI request to an institution every 60 working days. If you have a brief to cover a particular institution – say the council, or a hospital, like many local paper reporters do – then this immediately makes the Act a far weaker tool for good, honest journalism.