In defence of frivolous requests: FOIA and political accountability.

Cover of Fables for the Frivolous by Guy Wetmo...

Cover of Fables for the Frivolous by Guy Wetmore Carryl, with illustrations by Peter Newell. This was the cover of the 1898 publication of the poems. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The FOIA is under post legislative scrutiny by the justice select committee.  The written and oral evidence provided showed a concerned for frivolous or time wasting requests.  I write here to defend one of these requests and show that they have merit and worth when they are examined.

I am not going to make the argument that “frivolous” or “time wasting” requests are a small percentage of all requests. I am not going to make the argument that organisations can answer these without much effort even though they get the most publicity.  The curious point is that organisations never seem to point out when they fall below the ICO’s recommended response rate, nor do they point out the number of internal reviews, or complaints to the ICO over the response to FOI requests. Instead, they focus on the burden of “frivolous” requests.

What I want to focus on is the requests about ghosts and exorcisms.  What most people do not realize is that this is a real request.  In Easington in 2008,  a council resident asked the council to do a spiritual cleansing on their council home.  The Council agreed to this because it was more cost effective to have the spiritual cleansing than it was to move the tenant.  The spiritual cleansing was a success and the resident stayed in their home.  Everyone was satisfied (apart from the spirit who had been cleansed) with the outcome.

Now, if you are a resident in a different council and you wanted to have the same service for your council home, then you would want to gather evidence to support it.  You would have to go beyond the headlines and get official reports on the matter to support your case.  Alternatively, if you were a spiritual cleanser you may wish to find out if other authorities pay for such services. If so, you could advertise your services to them.  Again, a request for information on this matter would be useful.

Another way to look at this is if you are doing research on spiritual cleansing or exorcism.  The Catholic Church and other religions have exorcists and spiritual cleansing. If you are interested in that work, then finding out what the councils are providing may be of interest and use. The concern over spiritual harm is a real concern for many people. The more learned may scoff at such mysticism, yet some people are killed because of it.

The case in Newham of a child who was killed because of “witchcraft” shows that a belief in ghosts and evil spirits can have a serious and deadly consequence.  We may find that a request about ghosts frivolous yet for some people it can have a serious purpose.  To be sure, there is no immediate FOI connection to the witchcraft case. However, the point is that requests for information may seem frivolous and they can have a serious purpose.

If “frivolous” requests are a price of freedom of information, I think it is a price worth paying.At a basic level, a request for information under the freedom of information act is someone exercising their civil right. If we did not have FOI, we would never be able to find out about such “frivolous” requests.    Or is that being “frivolous”?

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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