Councils should be allowed to charge to provide information to the public following a dramatic increase in Freedom of Information requests, Birmingham City Council has suggested.
It urged MPs to let it charge £25 for every request it deals with, after complaining that some people make hundreds of requests but don’t pay a penny.
The authority suggested the charging scheme in a submission to a Commons inquiry into the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, which gives the public a legal right to request information from public bodies.
Anyone can demand information under the legislation, and recent requests to Birmingham City Council have included details of parking tickets issued in the city, information about empty properties and a request for details of the council’s fleet of official vehicles.
But the authority complained that it now faces more than 1,500 requests a year – and some individuals were making hundreds of requests to various public bodies without paying a penny towards the cost.
In a separate submission, Chris Sims, the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police, also called for new restrictions on what the public could demand to see.
Currently, Parliament and central government can refuse to answer a request if it will cost more than £600 to gather the information required, and other public bodies can refuse if the cost will exceed £450.
But Mr Sims, writing in his roles as head of West Midlands Police and an official with the Association of Chief Police Officers, called for the limit to be reduced, which would effectively allow bodies to reject more FOI requests.
Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister who was in power when the FOI Act became law, has described the legislation “one of the greatest mistakes I made in office” because it made it harder for politicians and officials to have private and honest discussions.
But MPs gave the complaints short shrift. The Commons Justice Committee said that public bodies could save money by improving the way they dealt with requests instead.
In written evidence submitted to the inquiry, Birmingham City Council said that the number of requests it receives has shot up from 355 in 2006 to 1521 last year. The number increased by 347 between 2010 and 2011 alone.
Furthermore, each request typically contained more than one question, and on average requests included more than four.
A study in 2009 had estimated that each request cost the authority between £250 and £300 to deal with, the council said.