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Expert hopeful over FoI review

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A review of Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation by MPs is a chance to highlight the true impact on local authorities, including the benefits, a leading FOI expert has said.

Dr Ben Worthy, left, research associate at University College London’s Constitution Unit, which has investigated the impact of FOI on councils, said the justice select committee review was a positive step.

Speaking before he gave evidence at the committee’s first session on Tuesday, he said he hoped the review would help dispel common misconceptions about FOI, including the idea it was mainly a central government issue.

“Roughly 60% to 70% of FOI requests go to councils. Politicians seem to think it’s about big things like the Iraq war but in most cases requests are very niche and about local, everyday issues like how often rubbish is collected,” he told LGC.

FOI supporters fear the review may lead to a watering down of the legislation with critics claiming it can hamper decision-making because people are too scared to write anything down.

But Dr Worthy said there was no firm evidence to suggest the act had caused a so-called “chilling effect” at local authority level.

“We found examples of it but firstly, it was not systematic and secondly, it was hard to show FOI was to blame as so many different factors affect whether a local authority keeps records,” he said.

“Some councils said it had improved transparency, communication and record-keeping.”

The number of FOI requests to councils has more than tripled in five years, soaring from about 60,000 in 2005 to more than 197,000 in 2010 at a total estimated cost of £31.6m, according to the unit.

However, Dr Worthy admitted it was hard to get an accurate picture of cost as estimates varied wildly between councils from about £30 to several hundred pounds per FOI request.

Croydon LBC, which said FOI requests have so far cost the authority £312,750 this financial year, revealed it intends to publish more information, including previous FOI responses, in a bid to pre-empt questions and limit the “increasing burden”.

However, Dr Worthy said this approach may not work as councils would not necessarily publish the very specific information people were interested in and residents might not want to spend time wading through raw data, preferring “someone to do it for them”.

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