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FOI 17

Written evidence from the University of Bath 1. This is the University of Baths response to the call for written evidence for the postlegislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Does the Freedom of Information Act work effectively? 2. The Act has certainly had the desired effect of obliging public authorities to not only routinely release information via the various publication schemes, but also to respond to FOI requests regarding the way in which they operate. The Act has also given an increasing awareness of the need to be accountable to the general public, including to individuals who may have very specific areas of interest. It is questionable whether the Act has had the adverse effect of encouraging public bodies to shy away from the previous open and frank discussions about operations due to concerns about requests under the Act. Perhaps naively when the Act was introduced it was not identified that its provisions would result in placing additional financial burdens on public bodies to enable them to ensure compliance.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Freedom of Information Act? Strengths 3. The Act makes information publicly available to anyone who wishes to discover more about the policies, procedures, operations and expenditure of publicly funded bodies. The Act has exposed practices within certain public bodies which were hitherto concealed and which have subsequently been addressed, MPs expenses being a particular example. Weaknesses 4. The Act is not robust enough in deterring habitual or vexatious requesters which places an unnecessary additional burden on organisations which are already bearing the brunt of financial cutbacks. As drafted the Appropriate Limit and Fees Regulations 2004 Regulations do not allow time spent redacting information to be included in calculations. This can be substantial and we would wholly support an amendment for time spent in redacting information to be included within the current maximum time periods. It should also be identified that the many requests that do involve close to the maximum 18 hours work involve a substantial cost to the institution, time that cannot be used in supporting its main purposes.

Is the Freedom of Information Act operating in the way that it was intended to? 5. The Freedom of Information Act came into force in 2005 to promote openness and transparency in public bodies. It was intended to make public authorities more accountable to the public at large and to be as open as possible in all its operations. The Act was also intended to improve decision making and better public understanding and participation in government, together with increased trust in those in charge of running public bodies.

FOI 17
6. The Act has undoubtedly resulted in greater transparency in the running of public bodies and a greater understanding by the public of the manner in which public money is being used. As many organisations have found, the largest number of requests come from journalists rather than individual members of the public soliciting information. 7. Increasing interest from journalists in the operation of public bodies and the use of public money may have had the opposite effect to that intended. Critics of the Act have rightly claimed that excessive use of the FOIA has resulted in public bodies exercising caution in discussing and recording matters which may subsequently become the subject of FOI requests. 8. Universities operate in a competitive arena and the fact that the FOIA applies to some higher education providers but not others (such as for profit providers, which will equally be receiving government money through the Student Loan Company) acts against a level playing-field. We understand that some organisations like the BBC are only subject to the FOIA in respect of their use of public money; a clear case could be put for a similar principle applying to providers of higher education. 9. The FOIA has placed an increasing financial burden on public bodies which have to use public money to provide resources to handle FOI requests. There has been an increase year on year in the number of requests processed by the University, as other universities have found. 10. Whilst understanding the need to balance public interest, the extent of the exemptions contained within the Act is very limited and it is arguable whether this is sufficient to protect the interests of higher education institutions and other public sector bodies. In particular, there is no equivalent in the FOIA to Section 27 (2) of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act which provides an exemption to specifically protect ongoing research. The University would strongly support an amendment to include such an exemption. January 2012