Thursday, May 24, 2007

Should the public know how much the Foreign Office spends on Ferrero Rocher chocolates?

The BBC reports:

Plans are due to be unveiled to deter "pointless and mischievous" requests under the Freedom of Information Act. UK Information Commissioner Richard Thomas will say the act's reputation is being jeopardised by such inquiries.

The commissioner cites some interesting examples which he regards as unreasonable and needing to be filtered out by existing provisions in the Freedom of Information Act:

-Someone asking for the amount spent by the Foreign Office on Ferrero Rocher chocolates. This is somewhat bizarre. I remember an advert for said chocolates which was based in an Embassy. Perhaps this advert inspired the request. That aside, I would certainly be concerned if the Foreign Office was spending any money on the 'luxury' of Ferrero Rocher chocolates and I think the amount should be in the public domain.

-Someone asking for the amount spent by the Prime Minister on make-up. I think this is an absolutely valid request. I think most people would be surprised that their taxes are going to provide make-up for the Prime Minister at all.

-Someone asking for the number of eligible bachelors in the Hampshire Police Force. Well, that is a bit nuts. I would have thought it raised a few concerns on confidentiality, and I would be surprised if it was entertained in the first place, unless someone can explain to me why providing this information would be enlightening and in the public interest.

There is a very fine line here. I am concerned that the commissioner is going to make it harder for the public to find out information. It is all very subjective. In the future, for example, will information about guests at Chequers not be forthcoming? I seem to recall that it took Norman Baker (or a Norman Baker lookalike) ages to get this information and it was like getting blood out of a stone. Norman Baker had to take the House of Commons to court to get MP's detailed expenses released.

So this is not an area to be dealt with lightly, especially given the parallel move by dinosaurs to get parliament exempted from the Freedom of Information act.

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