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Freedom of Information Laws Need to be Defended From Scaremongering of Their Costs

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Public authorities and elected officials are often wary of duties they are obliged to do and the Freedom of Information Act is one of them.

In recent weeks a number of councils have been complaining in the media about the money they have to spend on implementing and responding to requests under each year - in one case an entire council resigned because of the number of requests received.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOI), introduced in 2000, allows anyone to request information from public authorities from local/central government to universities. Authorities have to respond by law within 20 working days and are able to apply a range of exemptions to requests, including if a request will cost more than a certain threshold.

All five members of the rural Suffolk parish council of Walberswich quit after they say they were 'bombarded' with FOI requests. The chairman, now former chairman, said too much time and money was being spent on replying to requests from a small selection of families and that more than 100 requests had been sent. Another local authority has stepped in to temporarily replace the rogue councillorsuntil by-elections can be held.

An even more ridiculous council complaint saw a council claiming businesses were wasting taxpayers' money as the cost of replying to the requests was set to increase by £575 pounds a year.

Firstly, businesses are taxpayers.

Secondly, with a £45,000,000 million budget for 2012/13 Broadland District Council have no reason to be complaining to the media about their projections of FOI rising from £14,425.44p a year to "near £15,000."

The attacking of the current law isn't just subjected to local authorities, even the highest powers in the country have been accused of disliking the act. David Cameron may rightly be worried about his and his ministers' private texts being included under the act after seeing those he sent to former-News International editor Rebekah Brooks.

Tony Blair, who introduced the act, said it was his biggest mistake in government and has claimed it has stopped discussions between ministers and their aides.

All this amounts to is scaremongering as authorities do not want to be seen to be responsible for their actions even though many were elected into positions to be represent and be responsible.

The FOI laws we have are precious, they need to be protected and upheld for the state of this country's democratic wellbeing. They help every person in the country to hold public organisations and officials to account for their actions.

Campaigners can crucially use the FOI act to help their causes and extract information from official sources which they would not otherwise have access to. The National Society For the Protection of Children gathered data from police forces around the country, which was used to highlight the number of convictions of those with indecent pictures of children. A government committee looking into child abuse also used their information.

It is no secret that responding to FOI requests is costly, it takes time and resources but this should be a price we are willing to pay to be able to access information from those who work for the public. It should not be seen as a burden on public services. To improve the system and stop cases where councillors are standing down from their jobs authorities need to embrace openness and transparency.

After a story in the media where the Welsh Local Government Association said councils cannot afford to spend money on "unnecessary" requests a local man, Gary Willets summed up how FOI should be thought of.

"I think the more and more open these public bodies are, the less use will be made of the Freedom of Information Act."

Publishing information on a regular basis helps to reduce the time spent on responding to routine FOI requests. In an ideal world once a public body had received a duplicated request they should consider publishing the information on a frequently, a little extra work in the short-term will help to cut down on how much they have to do in total.

Transparency, by public authorities, creates and grows trust in the work they are doing and the sooner they realise this and accept the culture swing to one of democratic openness the better their work will be.