Federal government FOI free-for-all

Application fees for Freedom Information requests have been abolished and processing charges cut in new measures announced by the Minister for Privacy and Freedom of Information, Brendan O’Connor.

From November 1, the $30 application fee for FOI requests has been abolished for all applicants, as well as the cost of processing them (up to the the first five hours of decision-making).

“The fee of $40 for an internal review will also be removed,” he said.

“These changes are part of the largest ever overhaul of the FOI Act and evidence that the Gillard Government is committed to improving transparency and accountability across government.

“Eighty per cent of FOI applications in 2008-09 were requests for the applicants own personal records,” Mr O’Connor said.

“The Gillard Government recognises that people should be able to request their own personal information at no cost, so we’re also removing all charges for such requests.”

Previously, the fees for FOI requests for an applicant’s personal information were capped at $100. From November 1 there will be no fees whatsoever for such requests.

The National Archives of Australia in Canberra has told ABC News it fears the new FOI laws could result in top secret documents being inadvertently released to the public.

Many federal government records, including Cabinet documents, will now be made publicly available after 20 years instead of the current 30 years.

Archives director-general Ross Gibbs told the ABC the easing of FOI rules is "good news for the public' but will "increase the workload of staff and sensitive documents could slip through the cracks.

"What we're talking about is national security essentially, and personal sensitivity ... 20 years can be mid career or operationally for a national security issue, it can be still a live operation," he said.

"The risk is increased enormously, we have to be that much more careful," he said.

As well as increased workload dealing with "free" FOI requests, Commonwealth departments must also prepare for the Information Publication Scheme which commences on 1 May 2011.

This requires Australian Government agencies subject to the FOI Act to publish "a broad range of information on their websites and make it available for download where possible."

According to a statement, agencies will also be required to publish an Information Publication Plan "showing how they intend to implement the IPS along with an organisation chart, details of arrangements for consulting with members of the public on specific policy proposals for which the agency is responsible, and their operational information.

"The information must be accurate, up-to-date and complete.

The purpose of the scheme is ‘to allow the FOI Act to evolve as a legislative framework for
giving access to information through agency driven disclosure rather than as a scheme
that is primarily reactive to requests for documents’.

"The discretionary element of the publication scheme, designed to facilitate proactive disclosure by agencies, will mean that agencies will have a greater responsibility for considering whether documents they hold should be published."