Just as the switch of FOI ownership from the Ministry of Justice to the Cabinet Office happened on a quiet Friday, the government’s latest salvo in its war on Freedom of Information is similarly unheralded. The Ministry of Justice has quietly announced a consultation into changes to fees for appeals to the Information Tribunal. They are summarised (and I first heard about them) in this post on the Panopticon blog. Put simply, it will cost £100 to apply for an appeal, and £500 to get an oral hearing.
Fees for appeals favour organisations. They are biased against the public interest. They are an idea dreamed up by scoundrels with something to hide. They should – they must – be opposed by anyone who believes in holding government to account. The ICO makes bad decisions, and applicants need somewhere else to go. For every misconceived appeal, there are dozen good ones.
There is a strong case to be made against this; Christopher Knight has made a good start, and I imagine other bloggers will pile in soon enough. I might well return to the subject myself. But earlier today, I rather quixotically tweeted that I would pay the £100 for 5 other people’s appeals every year if the measure went ahead. Much of what I say on Twitter is an exaggerated, overhyped version of my true self. However, on reflection, I realised that I meant it and I should do something to prevent myself from backing out. I don’t want this measure to go ahead but if it does, here is something I can do. I make significantly less money out of FOI training than some people think I do, both as a proportion and as a total, but nevertheless, I’ve made my living out of FOI and DP for 15 years, and I should put something back in.
Therefore, I make this personal commitment. Assuming that the fee to appeal is £100, I will pay for five appeals every year. Hopefully others will join me in this, and we can set up some kind of process to handle it, with reasonable criteria. Don’t get me wrong: this should not be necessary. FOI applicants without £100 to spare should not have to resort to charity. But we must not have a situation where poor decisions can only be overturned by the well-off. If this malignant gesture is not seen off, I want to put my money literally where my mouth is and defend the public’s ability to ask awkward questions. I’m not committing to backing oral hearings, especially on my own, as I’m sceptical about how much good they do and I’m not made of money. I can help five people or one with the same money; it’s not a complicated calculation.
I tweeted my criteria earlier, and though I may want to finesse them slightly, this is where I am at. I will fund the £100 application fee of five appeals as long as:
1) the applicant plainly cannot afford the £100 (I’m not talking about means-testing, just anyone who can make a good case)
2) the request is plainly in the public interest (i.e. not just banging on about a subject that only interests them)
3) the applicant is not a dickhead (innocent face)
Admittedly, this rules out a few high-profile applicants from the get-go (HI THERE!), but this is precisely why access to the Tribunal should not be governed by the whims of dilettantes such as myself.
In conclusion, therefore, I want to ask anyone who reads this blog to do two things. Firstly, as Christopher Knight’s blog as already asked everyone to, please respond to the consultation. Make a forceful argument about why this should not happen.
Secondly, if the changes go through, ask yourself if you have the money to spare to sponsor FOI appeals for those who do not. I am not so well-to-do than I won’t notice that absence of £500 in my bank account, but it’s a price I am willing to pay. Are you in a similar position? Will you help me to set up and run some kind of application process? This might sounds defeatist, but I would like the Ministry of Justice to know that if they pull this off, embarrassing appeals will still go forward. Government decisions will still be overturned. FOI will still work its awkward, inconvenient, disruptive magic.
If at any point, you decide you’re interested, let me know.