A report in the* Eastern Daily Press* says companies’ use of the Freedom of Information Act is putting NHS bodies in Norfolk under strain.

Apparently, companies are using the FOIA to gather market intelligence about public sector procurement, and some public sector officials are not happy about it:

Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital spokesman Andrew Stronach said that in the past three months the majority of requests the hospital had received under the act had been from companies.

He said: “It seems to be used predominantly by commercial organisations, often they want information about our contracts.

“It is taking a fair amount of time to answer all their requests and it is frustrating because that is not what the act was designed for.”

Norwich North MP Dr Ian Gibson hit out at corporate use of the act, describing it as “quite corrupt.”

He said: “We don’t need third parties coming in here making profits out of it. This is just someone trying to rip-off doctors and hospitals even more.

“Public time and money shouldn’t be used to facilitate cheap money-making exercises.”

I’m not sure what the fuss is about. Information requests under FOIA are supposed to be treated as purpose-blind. It’s the first step down a dangerous path if government agencies begin to assess the merit of a FOIA request based on the presumed purpose for which it is made.

Requests for commercially-valuable information are a well-known phenomenon in other constituencies that have Freedom of Information laws. Corporate FOI requests are among the most common type in the United States, according to a study by the Heriage Foundation, the conservative Washington think tank. Jay Smith, the president of Cox Newspapers recently testified before Congress that journalists’ investigations account for under five per cent of all requests to Federal agencies (PDF). That the same pattern is emerging in Britain doesn’t surprise me the least bit.

In the United States, companies use FOIA to find information about how decisions are made in awarding government contracts and to find out snippits of information about their competitors. Consultancies of FOIA experts are often behind this form of corporate espionage. The aircraft giant Boeing is one recent target of corporate espionage by FOIA. At least two consultancies modelled on these American organisation have sprung up in the UK this year.

All this means is that companies with deep pockets for research are more aware of the potential of FOIA and more able to use the Act than other types of requesters.