|The Campaign for Freedom of Information|
Press release: 3 July 2009
"Severe delays" in investigating freedom of information complaints "undermining" FOI Act
Long delays by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in investigating freedom of information complaints are undermining the effectiveness of the FOI Act, according to a new report by the Campaign for Freedom of Information.
The report analyses nearly 500 formal decision notices issued by the ICO in the 18 months to 31 March 2009. The decisions were made under the FOI Act and the associated Environmental Information Regulations. It finds that -
The report also found that on average the ICO’s investigation into a complaint did not begin until 8 months after the complaint had been received. In 28% of cases, there was a delay of more than a year before the investigation began and 19 cases waited more than 18 months. One complaint had been with the ICO for 22 months before the investigation began.
Examples cited in the report include:
The Campaign concludes that delays “are sufficiently serious and widespread to represent a threat to the FOI Act’s effectiveness and public confidence in it”.
According to the report’s authors, Maurice Frankel and Katherine Gundersen: “A delay of 2 to 3 years or more in reaching a decision, as happens in over a quarter of cases means that even if the information is ultimately disclosed it may no longer be of interest or use to the requester. Requesters who experience such delays may be so frustrated by the experience that they become reluctant to use the Act again or to complain to the ICO about refusals. Delays may also mean that authorities carry on repeating mistakes over long periods, affecting many requests, before the ICO puts them right. Finally, if authorities calculate that they can safely withhold information for several years before the Commissioner compels disclosure, a minority may do so deliberately, just to ‘buy time’.”
However, the Campaign says that some decision notices are issued relatively promptly. It cites the ICO’s decision to require the Ministry of Justice to disclose the list of sites that were being considered for the construction of new ‘Titan’ prisons. This decision was issued in March 2009 less than 4 months after the complaint.
The report also acknowledges that some information may be disclosed informally, as a result of the ICO’s intervention, without the need for a decision notice. The lack of published information about such cases means they could not be included in the study.
The report says that delays by authorities in responding to requests are also a significant problem. The FOI Act allows the normal 20 working day period to be extended by a ‘reasonable’ period to consider whether to disclose exempt information on public interest grounds. However, some authorities have abused this provision. It cites the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) which wrote to some requesters every month for 12 consecutive months, taking a further 20 working day extension each time.
The internal reviews which authorities carry out before
a requester can complain to the ICO are another source
sometimes deliberate delay,
according to the Campaign. Examples include 15 months
spent on an internal review by Greater Manchester Police,
by the Department
for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and
a review by NOMS which took 29 months. The ICO, recommends
normally be completed
in 20 working days and should never exceed 40 working
The Campaign’s report concludes that: “The FOI Act has proved a major success in opening up many previously closed areas of public life. The decisions of the Information Commissioner, together with the Information Tribunal’s rulings, have been at the heart of this success. However, its effectiveness is being undermined by the damaging delays described here. Significant improvements in both the efficiency of the ICO’s complaint handling processes and its funding are essential if this threat to health of the FOI Act is to be addressed.”
Maurice Frankel 0207 831 7477 or
Katherine Gundersen 0207 831 7477
|Freedom of Information & Open Government.|