David Coveney

Freedom of Information is Abused

In 2000 in the UK, the Freedom of Information Act gave us all the ‘right to know’ what our public bodies were up to.  We can ask for information about a huge range of items, and it’s a great idea.  Information should, in my view, be as open and transparent as possible.

But there’s a problem.

It’s become easier and easier to make FOI requests, for example using sites like the excellent http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/

I like this.  I like efficiency.  I like speedy, easy to use systems.

But what I don’t particularly like are some people.

Let me explain.  People, in general, tend to be quite nice, harmless, and socially aware.  But a significant proportion, perhaps 20%, are best described as spoiled, selfish, mean… you know what I mean.  And that’s an awful lot of people.  In our population of 60 million or so that means there are 12 million not especially nice folk around.  A smaller proportion, perhaps a million, will be genuinely unpleasant*.

So, what happens when a large number of people can easily make requests to the FOI that are, to all intents and purposes, selfish?

This is what happens, each set from just one user:

In each case the requests pertained to commercial information.  The diesel misfuelling question is by Nick Panchaud, who a quick bit of googling for the term “Nick Panchaud diesel” reveals him to be commenting around the place promoting the Diesel Key, a device to prevent petrol hoses being inserted into diesel vehicles.

Natalie Davis and Keith Griffiths are harder to track down conclusively due to their more common names, but the requests they make would only really be of interest to commercial organisations, so I’m rolling with it.

What’s happening is that at least some people are making multiple FOI requests for commercial gain.  Yet there’s a massive cost behind all this.  I decided to do a little bit of FOI requesting myself.  My question?  How much did Nick Panchaud’s requests cost you to service?

I only asked three public bodies (let’s not build up the costs here!) and two responded ( http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/user/david_coveney ) giving costs of £87.63 and £50.  Not much of a sample size, but let’s roll with it – it may be representative.  Given that, you can see that to fulfil Mr Panchaud’s research it has cost public bodies as much as £41,900.  Money that has come out of tax payer’s pockets.

If we assume similar costs for those other requests I’ve listed above (it may be quite a bit more: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/News/Releases/2010/11/12143737) , we’re looking at potentially another £87,700.  So three people with commercial interests have sucked over £100k from our economy.

A Possible Solution

FOI requests are costing the country millions.  People like our Nick Panchaud above are not using the FOI system in the spirit in which it was meant to be used.  Consequently they are costing us a fortune and we need to find a way, in these difficult times, to slash those costs.

I propose a change to the FOI system that makes all requesters pay a small fee.  It doesn’t have to be a lot – perhaps £10 each.  That would stop the scurrilous and wasteful requests, whilst still keeping the system open for those with a real purpose for the information they seek.  Even commercial researchers.  Obviously it should be reviewed in time – it may need to go up, or down, but usually people are economically quite selfish and they’ll consider more carefully the requirement.

I know this post is likely to disappear in the noise and won’t get much traction, but this has been bugging me for a while now and I had to say something!

* On the upside, there’s 600,000+ geniuses (depending how you measure it) floating around, so maybe they balance out.  Then again, perhaps 20% of those geniuses are evil geniuses.  In which case that’s 120,000 evil geniuses in the country.  That’s a lot.

Comments

Posted: 5 March, 2012 at 12:31 AM

Fuelman says:

I just wrote an article about this chap Nick Panchaud , and thanks for what you wrote on yours, very revealing

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Posted: 26 June, 2012 at 8:54 AM

Honest says:

You will possibly pleased to know that Nick Panchaud is one of these tax accountants that relieves the country of millions of pounds with Tax evasion schemes for the wealthy including himself.

You will always find this individual abusing free availiable services to benefit himself regardless of the
consequences to others.

Living off others, beats working I guess “”

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Posted: 1 October, 2014 at 11:06 AM

MTHead says:

I currently working on FOI ni the council I work for … 1000 requests per annum. Of these 120 regarding commercial property, 95% from companies wanting to re-sell the info ..total time spent on those 120 requests – about 200 hours

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Posted: 5 December, 2014 at 10:22 AM

CH says:

I work in the Public Sector and have to provide commercial details under FOI on a weekly basis. However, the real cost is the SPAM and cold calling that this information generates when it has been sold on. FOI should not be used a marketing tool!

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Posted: 31 May, 2016 at 10:41 AM

Peter Armstrong says:

I totally agree. Over 95% of FOI requests to my organisation appear to be for commercial purposes. The ones I see are simply requesting all our purchasing details in particular areas, with contract end dates and persons responsible – so they can make contact when a contract is due for renewal. Sometimes it is so they can sell on the details.

Since public body purchasing is largely based on tenders and tendered frameworks the information is of little direct use. The extreme vagueness of many requests compounds the uselessness. “Subscribe to the tendering publications and online services” is the real answer to most of them.

We need a change in the law. A fee per enquiry is a simple and workable idea. It doesn’t hinder a real focused query to one body or a few, but does deter the marketing people who query hundreds of bodies.

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Posted: 11 April, 2017 at 1:54 PM

J Doherty says:

As Head of a group of Secondary schools we are hit by this and I have used FOI to find out from the Universities how often they have bothered schools with this. Of course, their research moves them up the league tables and is used in training courses and publications and is therefore being used for commercial purposes. University of Winchester is particularly awful in this regard.

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