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ICO delays raised in Parliament

The Campaign for Freedom of Information’s report on Delays in Investigating Freedom of Information Complaints by the Information Commissioner’s Office has been the subject of two Parliamentary questions, one by Lord Lester in the House of Lords and one by Norman Baker MP in the House of Commons. Both received identical responses. It also featured in a short debate in the House of Commons.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: To ask Her Majesty’s Government following the publication of the report by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, Delays in Investigating Freedom of Information Complaints, what steps they will take to ensure that the Information Commissioner’s Office can complete its investigations in a timely manner. [HL4851]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the Information Commissioner regularly review the resources required for the commissioner to discharge all of his freedom of information responsibilities. For this financial year, the Government have identified additional funding of £500,000 for the Information Commissioner’s Office’s freedom of information work, over and above the baseline funding of £5 million. We are discussing with the office how it can use this additional funding most effectively to reduce the number of outstanding cases.

In addition, the MoJ promoted a scheme last year where secondees from central government departments work for the ICO to help clear the freedom of information cases at their home departments’ expense. There are currently seven secondees working at the ICO.

Gordon Prentice MP, a member of the Public Administration Committee, raised the issue during the debate on the Summer Recess Adjournment. Citing the Campaign’s finding that 25% of cases resulting in a decision notice from the ICO took between 2 and 3 years, he said:

In the long run, we are all dead and a Parliament runs for a maximum of only five years, yet people are waiting for years for the Information Commissioner to come forward with a decision—I am one of those people.

Mr Prentice used his own experience of making a Freedom of Information request to the Cabinet Office to illustrate the problem:

In November 2007, in the Public Administration Committee, I raised the case of Michael Ashcroft with the Cabinet Secretary. I did so because in March 2000, No. 10 issued a press release that said that Michael Ashcroft had given—I paused for effect there—

“a clear and unequivocal assurance”

that he would take up permanent residence in the UK by the end of the year—by the end of 2000. To this day, he refuses to answer the question on that. I, therefore, raised it with the Cabinet Secretary in the Select Committee in November 2007. Sir Gus O’Donnell got back to me, saying that the Cabinet Office has no jurisdiction over either House of Parliament and he did not see a role for him on the issue of the undertaking, as it was really not a matter for him. On the other question of residency, he said that it was exempt information because it involved a conferring by the Crown of an honour or dignity—that refers to Michael Ashcroft’s peerage. The second reason the information was exempt was that it related to personal information provided, by Michael Ashcroft, in confidence.

Those reasons were bogus and spurious, so I appealed. My appeal was considered by the permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office and it was turned down in March 2008. At the end of that month, I wrote to the Information Commissioner and the matter has been with the Information Commissioner ever since. To this day, I do not know why there has been a huge delay of 16 months. I am asking only for two simple pieces of information. I do not want to know how much tax Lord Ashcroft is paying, but I want to know the answer to the following questions: to whom did Michael Ashcroft give that assurance and what form did that assurance take—was it oral, in a letter or in an e-mail? I have been denied those two straightforward pieces of information for 16 months.

Mr Prentice added that if he didn’t have the information within 4 weeks, he would raise this matter again when the House returns in October.

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