A charge of £325 imposed by Folkestone and Hythe District Council for accessing environmental information was unreasonable, the Information Commissioner’s Office has said in a decision notice.
The complainant had asked for information about meetings held by the Kent Planning Officers Group.
The local authority had originally sought to charge £375 but amended that to £325 during the Commissioner’s investigation.
The ICO has now decided that the council had:
- breached regulation 8(3) of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 by seeking to levy an unreasonable charge for the provision of environmental information;
- breached regulation 8(4) by failing to notify the complainant of the sought advance payment of the charge within the required time.
The ICO required Folkestone and Hythe to issue a fresh response to the complainant that did not seek to apply a charge under regulation 8.
In a blog on the watchdog’s website, Gill Bull, Director of Freedom of Information at the Information Commissioner’s Office, said it would be easier as a result of the ICO’s decision for people to get the information they need to take part in informed debates.
Bull said: “Unlike requests made under FOIA, which are generally free up to an ‘appropriate limit’ - £450 for local councils and £600 for central government organisations - the EIR says public authorities are allowed to charge a reasonable amount.
“Public authorities must ask themselves what is a reasonable charge and when it is reasonable to make one. As you might expect, different authorities have many different answers to this question.”
Bull said that the ICO wanted to reduce these inconsistencies and uncertainties to benefit both public authorities and members of the public.
The Folkestone & Hythe decision notice said that a useful starting point for considering whether a charge was reasonable was whether it fell under the ‘appropriate limit’ provided by FOIA.
“Our guidance states that public authorities should avoid routinely charging for all EIR requests. Instead, they should weigh up the reasons behind the law and whether that cost may deter people from requesting information. This is in line with the clear judgement in the case of East Sussex County Council v Information Commissioner which found that a reasonable charge is one that would not have a deterrent effect,” Bull said.
She added that public authorities should bear in mind that the ICO might consider that a charge under the EIR was unreasonable where the cost of answering the request fell under the appropriate limit provided by FOIA.
“We plan to follow this decision by publishing revised guidance later this year, emphasising the importance of avoiding charges that have a deterrent impact,” she said.
“Access to information is an important right, and it’s vital that the financial cost of exercising that right does not prevent people from playing a full and informed part in the democratic debate about the future of our planet.”