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Government statistics highlight “unacceptable” freedom of information delays

The unacceptable delays experienced by many people using the Freedom of Information Act are highlighted in official statistics published today.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information said the government’s figures showed that a “disturbing” level of requests were not being dealt with within the Act’s time limits. The figures show that:

  • more than a third of all requests to government departments (36%) took longer than the Act’s 20-working day deadline to answer.
  • although extensions are permitted for some types of requests [see note overleaf] departments must tell applicants they need the extra time within 20 days of the request. Departments failed to meet this deadline in a quarter of all cases (25%).
  • The Home Office had the worst record of any government department. In 60% of all requests it failed either to respond to the request within 20 days, or even tell the applicant that it needed more time within that period. The Campaign said this represented “routine disregard for the Act’s requirements”.
  • The Department of Health failed to tell applicants that it needed an extension within the required time in 43% of all its requests and the Department of Trade and Industry overshot the deadline in 33% of cases.

Other departments were substantially more successful: the Department for Transport and the Department for Constitutional Affairs both answered 83% of their requests within the basic 20 working day period. The Department for Work and Pensions met this time limit in 81% of cases and the Ministry of Defence, which received far more requests than any other department, met the 20 day limit for 71% of its requests.

However, the Campaign was critical of the fact that the monitoring statistics failed to show how long people actually had to wait for replies. The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said: “The government is only measuring how long departments take to tell people that their requests will be delayed – without telling us anything about the actual delays. As long as you have been told within 20 days that your request is going to be delayed, the report says the department has dealt with it successfully. But the real test is how long you have to wait for an answer, whether this is 2, 3 or even 4 months – and the report is completely silent about this.”

The figures also showed substantial variation in the percentage of requests granted in full. The Department of Transport was top of the list, answering 76% of all requests in full, followed by the Ministry of Defence which provided full answers to 67% of all requests. The Campaign said that the actual FOI responses published by these departments on their web sites showed that they were genuinely pushing forward the boundaries of disclosure. At the other end of the scale the Department of Trade and Industry provided full answers in only 21% of cases, the Home Office in 28% and the Cabinet Office in 29% of cases.

The Campaign said the report showed substantial variation between departments. “Some departments may deal with more sensitive materials than others, but its also clear that some parts of Whitehall are more committed to freedom of information than others” it said.

The report also shows that virtually all FOI requests to central government were dealt with free of charge, and that even photocopying charges are normally waived – a fact welcomed by the Campaign.

Notes:

1. Public authorities can take longer than 20 working days to respond to a request where the Act requires them to consider disclosing exempt information on public interest grounds. In this case they are allowed a “reasonable” extension, but must tell the applicant that they need the extra time within 20 working days of receiving the request.

2. The statistics are published by the Department for Constitutional Affairs on it web site. See: “Freedom of Information Act 2000. Statistics on Implementation in Central Government. Q1. January-March 2005.”

Further information:

Campaign for Freedom of Information: 020 7490 3958

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