Support for Freedom of Information Act

Cheshire East Council was one of the few councils that responded to the consultation on the Freedom of Information Act. The Independent Commission on Freedom of Information reported that “There is no evidence that the Act needs to be radically altered, or that the right of access to information needs to be restricted.”

At the Cheshire East Council Audit & Governance Committee meeting on 17 March, Sam Corcoran proposed that the committee should express its support for the provisional views of the Commission and this was accepted.

The provisional views are:

1)      The Freedom of Information Act (2000) should be extended to those who are providing public services under contract.  It is suggested this should be done by treating information about the performance of the contract as being held on behalf of the contracting public authority, although it is considered that this should be limited to new contracts only, and only those contracts where the annual value is £5m or greater.

2)      Changes to the cost limit.  Currently an authority is able to issue a fees notice if it is considered that the effort involved in responding to a Freedom of Information request (not a request under the Environmental Information Regulations) is greater than 18 man hours.  It is suggested that additional tasks (i.e. any necessary redaction for certain exemptions) should be included as a permitted activity in the 18-hour time limit (subject to the IC being able to overturn the refusal where there is a strong public interest in the request being responded to).

Sam Corcoran, Labour and Co-operative Councillor for Sandbach Heath & East, said, “The Freedom of Information Act has been a great success in changing the mentality of public service. I am pleased that the Cheshire East Council Audit & Governance Committee agreed with me that the Freedom of Information Act should be extended to those providing public services under contracts of more than £5m.

At present Freedom of Information Act requests are free unless they take more than 18 hours of staff time. I support the call of the Commission to include additional tasks in this time limit. Personally, I would also support reducing this time limit significantly. People should have access to information, but there is some abuse of this right and where the request involves a lot of staff work then the person requesting the information should have to pay for that work.”

Nick Mannion, Labour Councillor for Macclesfield West & Ivy, said, “It is excellent news that no major changes are proposed to the FoI act. Indeed, the value of the FoI to local democracy and transparency was proven by the damning information it obliged CEC to make public about certain aspects of the Core-Fit fiasco and the involvement of the former leader of the council in the matter. A matter that has yet to be concluded.”

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