ICO announces announces results of FOI monitoring

No enforcement action will be taken against the Cabinet Office or the Ministry of Defence following an extended period of monitoring, as both departments have improved their FOI response times, the ICO has announced:

Both authorities have now improved their response times with over 85% of information requests being answered within the time limit of 20 working days and are working hard to deal with outstanding requests where responses have been unduly delayed. The ICO will continue to offer support and advice to help both Departments to ensure that outstanding requests are cleared as soon as possible.

It will be interesting to see the Ministry of Justice’s statistics when they are published. Both departments were required to sign undertakings committing them to improve their performance in June 2011. The MoJ statistics for the period 1 July to 30 September 2011 show that the Cabinet Office answered only 65% of requests within 20 working days and the Ministry of Defence figure was 79%.

The ICO also announced that 6 of the 18 public authorities monitored between 1 April and 30 June 2011 have been required to sign undertakings. These are the Welsh Government, Kent County Council, Cornwall Council, East Lancashire NHS Trust, Nottingham City Council and North Somerset Council.

Last week the permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office, Ian Watmore, was questioned by the Public ¬†Administration Committee about the department’s record on FOI. He assured the Committee the delays had been dealt with:

Q114 Alun Cairns: Mr Watmore, how would you describe the transparency record of the Department?

Ian Watmore: Because the transparency agenda started with us, we have attempted to be as transparent as we possibly can in as many areas as we can. We have been publishing loads of statistics about what we have achieved, when we have achieved it, what all our people get paid, how many savings we have achieved in the efficiency programme, etc. I do not know if there are any areas that you have in your mind that you wanted to probe.

Q116 Alun Cairns: Yes, I wanted to probe a bit further. Having expressed concerns in August 2010 about the performance of the Cabinet Office in responding to FOI requests, in October 2011 the Information Commissioner announced that it was placing the Cabinet Office under special intensive monitoring arrangements. How do I reconcile that statement with what you have just said?

Ian Watmore: No, I absolutely understand what you are saying. I think what happened, bluntly, was not a lack of transparency. The FOI requests were flooding in from all parts of the system; we had hordes of people arriving; the Department was being restructured; and the management eye went off the ball in terms of ensuring that the FOI requests were answered properly. I think the Information Commissioner rightly held us to account for that. We have put in place a programme to deal with that. It is now dealt with.

Q118 Alun Cairns: How do you see, then, the Department acting as a role model to other Departments across Government, bearing in mind you need to take the lead on this, when you are under such special measures?

Ian Watmore: I think there is a difference between, “Are you administratively correct in what you are doing?” and “Are you trying to hide information?” We are definitely not hiding information. We seek to be transparent. We will answer all Freedom of Information requests as required by the law. In this particular case, we got behind on the backlog of FOI requests and we had to move resources to it to deal with it. It was a mistake. We have corrected it. I do not think it will happen again.

Q119 Alun Cairns: I might accept the responses that you have just given me if it was not for standard parliamentary questions going out and the responses coming back saying that you do not hold the information or the information is too costly to collate, which has also been a concern to a number of interested parties and to MPs too. Is it not that that has been used an excuse?

Ian Watmore: That answer, almost certainly, would have been given whether we had done it on time or not. There is a difference between, “Does the FOI request get answered in the allowed time?”-and I accept that the Cabinet Office got behind on that and we have sorted it-and the completely different question of, “In an individual FOI request, do you like the answer that is given?” You will not like some of the answers that are given. We get a lot of requests for a lot of information that would be an unbelievably disproportionate cost to go and collect, at a time when we are already accused, by other parts of the world, of being overly demanding on information from Government Departments.

He was also asked by the chair of the Committee whether parliamentary questions get as equal respect as FOI requests and whether the department refuses to answer more PQs than other departments.

Q127 Chair: I am sure there is not an intention, but there is no legal force to a parliamentary question but there is legal force to an FOI request, so, inevitably, it is easier to fob off a parliamentary question.

Ian Watmore: I would be happy to look into any examples you have. What I am saying to Mr Cairns is not that there is an unwillingness to be open. There is a very strong willingness to be open. The Government has committed to that and we take it. What I think we did lose the focus on was the administration of it. We have corrected that. Then it is a question of having to look at each topic on its merits.

Q131 Chair: Can I just press you on this point before we go on? We are advised that you have, in the past, refused information on the grounds of cost, which other Departments have been able to provide. Do you accept that?

Ian Watmore: I do not know. You have to give me the examples. Without an example in front of me, I cannot say.

Full uncorrected transcript of evidence here.
See also Tim Turner’s blog post ‘The Cabinet Office & FOI, A Retrospective, 2010-2011

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