Community Affairs Wednesday 23 February
Ms Halton—Senator Siewert asked whether we had received any new FOI requests.
Ms Halton—Since the last committee session the department received one new request which was subsequently withdrawn by the applicant. There are 16 requests currently being processed and an updated list is available for tabling. You asked about costs?
Ms Halton—In one current case the department has spent eight months in negotiations with the tobacco industry applicant on narrowing the scope, a large number of detailed requests potentially covering over 10,000 files down to 242 files containing over 92,000 documents. In that case the initial charges estimate to process the documents requested were $1,471,372.52. Negotiations on the scope of the request brought that down to $800,409.58 before agreement was reached from a request with estimated charges of $367,106.33.
In another current case the department has spent six months in negotiations with a tobacco industry applicant on narrowing the scope of a large number of detailed requests potentially covering over 5,800 files down to 280 files. In that case the initial charges estimate was $637,673.50. Negotiations on the scope of the request brought that down to $100,426.17 before agreement was reached on request with estimated charges of $25,566.49.
There is something important I need to tell you. The FOI regulations do not provide for full cost recovery and the charges levied to FOI applicants do not reflect the real cost of completing the work. The regulations state that, regardless of the level of the officer, which includes me, staff time is chargeable at $15 per hour for search and retrieval and $20 per hour for decision making time. In addition, none of the costs involved in the process of negotiation, which included assessing the requests and preparing the three charges estimates, are covered by the ultimate estimate of the charges for which the applicant is liable.
Senator SIEWERT—In other words, the eight months and the six months?
Ms Halton—Correct. The department has employed up to an additional six staff at any time to assist with these matters and has had up to nine staff simultaneously working full time on processing at various times. We have also included costs in engaging external legal advice to supplement an internal legal team given the volume of documents being processed. By way of context, we take our FOI obligations very seriously, but it gives you a flavour.
Senator SIEWERT—If I understand you correctly, that was just for two of the applications?
Senator SIEWERT—And there are 16 more to go?
Senator SIEWERT—I have not scribbled down all those figures. Are you able to table that document you were just reading from?
Ms Halton—I will find a version that I can table for you.
Senator SIEWERT—It is hard to get them exactly right; I want to make sure I have them exactly right.
Ms Halton—I thought you might. Can I clarify something? A number of those may include a couple of the applicants.
Senator SIEWERT—You said that there had been one more but that has been withdrawn.
Ms Halton—There had been one more but it had been withdrawn.