West Suffolk: Requests for information from hospital have tripled in five years


- Credit: PA

DEALING with requests under the Freedom of Information Act has cost a hospital up to nearly £300,000 in the last decade.

Bosses at West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds described the requests as “time-consuming” as new figures revealed that the demands for information have tripled since 2007.

Campaigners have said that it is vital that the Freedom of Information requests, known as FOIs, are an important way to improve the public’s access to official information.

However many requests submitted to the hospital appear to be from businesses asking for details about suppliers of their phone line, broadband and even photocopiers.

According to information released by the hospital, just 19 FOIs were submitted to them between 2004 to 2005, 16 of which were responded to in full and three others that had some exemptions.

By 2008, that figure had spiralled to 93, before more than doubling the following year to 211 - 207 of which were dealt with in full. In 2012-2013 the number of FOIs submitted had grown to 312, with 267 disclosed in full. Thirty-two requests included partial or full exemptions.

West Suffolk Hospital currently employs one information governance manager and one data quality manager who both work on the FOI requests as part of their job roles.

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The amount of time they specifically spend coordinating responses to FOI is not recorded by the hospital. However, national calculations have suggested that the cost of dealing with requests stands at between £250 and £184 each.

Based on the lowest figure, since the first request was made in 2004 up to 2013, FOIs have cost West Suffolk Hospital £282,808. The range of subjects covered in FOI requests made to the hospital in the last month range those from a company enquiring about digital dictation to the number of births in the maternity unit.

A spokeswoman for West Suffolk Hospital said: “We have received an increasing number of FOI requests over recent years. Although these can be time-consuming to answer, the Freedom of Information Act places a statutory duty on us to respond within 20 working days.”

The Government are thought to be looking at measures that would limit FOI use where one person or company make such frequent unrelated requests that they become disproportionately burdensome.

But the Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFFOI), a non-profit organisation working to ensure that the Freedom of Information Act is implemented effectively, said the move could prevent newspapers - not just individuals - making varied requests to public authorities. A spokesman said the proposals had been advanced by Blair’s administration in 2006 but put down by Gordon Brown because it might have “placed unacceptable barriers between the people and public information.”

In a written response to proposed changes to the FOI Act CFFOI said: “The coalition Government now appears to be resuscitating this proposal too. It says it wants to tackle those making “industrial” use of the Act. Again, if that is the objective, it should be addressed by a measure targeted at those making vast numbers of requests.”

Figures for this report came from an FOI submitted to the hospital by a member of the public.