Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Freedom of Information Curbed

MOD
The MoD has investigated 28 reports of UFO sightings in Wales since 2002. The encounters included a black object hovering over Rhyl, a flying disc over Newport and a spinning craft with legs spotted over the Valleys

By Sam Coates
The Times On Line
10-18-06

MINISTERS are personally vetting thousands of controversial freedom of information requests, causing a bottleneck that is costing the taxpayer millions.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, is proposing a draconian crackdown on the public’s right to access information held by the State. He has claimed that the introduction of rules opening up Whitehall are clogging up government and distracting ministers.

Already 56 Opposition MPs and senior Labour backbenchers have registered opposition, including the chairmen of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs committees.

An economic report commissioned by the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) has disclosed that one in five requests is being personally considered by ministers. Ministers were never intended to play a substantial role in taking decisions.

Requests involving ministers take 5½ hours’ more work than the average request and cost £495, almost twice as much. The Times has learnt that some ministers are getting their special advisers to examine requests, which campaigners and MPs say is inappropriate.

Under the proposals, opposition politicians, campaign groups and journalists will have to ration requests to public bodies or risk their inquiries being automatically rejected. Organisations such as The Times would be limited to two questions to a Whitehall department every 60 days.

In addition, requests for sensitive and controversial information will be more likely to be refused because they take up too much government time.

Government departments can refuse requests if the cost of searching is more than £600. Lord Falconer is changing the rules so that that would include “reading, consideration and consultation time”.

Lord Falconer believes that the changes would save £5.7 million and result in a 19 per cent drop in requests. Campaigners say that this money could be saved if ministers did not vet so many requests. Baroness Ashton of Upholland, a DCA minister, told the BBC: “We have to look at how the Act is being implemented and the cost to the taxpayer, and consider issues about good governance.”

The Freedom of Information Act has been enthusiastically embraced by the public, with 121,000 requests a year, costing £35.5 million. The Government is not proposing a blanket fee for each request.

DATA IN DEMAND
  • The MoD has investigated 28 reports of UFO sightings in Wales since 2002. The encounters included a black object hovering over Rhyl, a flying disc over Newport and a spinning craft with legs spotted over the Valleys

  • Child Support Agency has had to pay refunds to more than 3,000 men after DNA tests revealed that they had been wrongly named by mothers in paternity suits

  • Information about events leading to faulty TB vaccines being given to nearly one million children

  • Regional figures for knife and alcohol-related crime

  • Local authority spending on consultants’ fees

  • Lists of guests entertained at Chequers

  • How much will Tony Blair will be entitled to when he leaves office? (£2.6m)

More . . .

See Also: MoD Opens Borough X-Files

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