The Information Commissioner should clamp down on authorities which make requesters wait months before replying to their freedom of information (FOI) requests, according to the Campaign for Freedom of Information.
The delays faced by some requesters are revealed in new government figures published today. These show that:
- 78 FOI requests to the Treasury took more than 120 working days to be answered in 2012. The figure includes 69 requests made the previous year but not answered until 2012.
- The Treasury was also the worst offender in terms of interminable internal reviews: 27 internal reviews took more than 100 working days to complete. Two thirds of these were started in 2011 but not completed until 2012.
- 22 requests to the Home Office took more than 120 working days to be answered. The majority of these were made in 2011 but only answered in 2012. Five of its internal reviews took more than 100 working days to complete.
- 18 requests to the Ministry of Defence dragged on for more than 120 working days before being answered while 6 internal reviews took more than 100 working days.
- 17 requests to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office went unanswered for at least 120 working days and 1 internal review exceeded 100 working days.
- 6 requests to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills took more than 120 days to be answered while 1 internal review exceeded 100 working days.
The Campaign said these figures probably underestimate the actual delays occurring because there are no figures to show by how much these responses exceed 120 days. Some requests may be going unanswered for up to or even more than a year.
It says the figures demonstrate the need for more explicit time limits for responding to FOI requests. The Act requires authorities to respond to requests within 20 working days but allows an unspecified “reasonable” extension to consider disclosing information on public interest grounds. The Information Commissioner says the extension should not normally exceed a further 20 working days and should never exceed an additional 40 working days.
There are no statutory time limits for internal reviews under the FOI Act at all. The Information Commissioner recommends they should normally be completed within 20 working days and should never exceed 40 working days.
The Campaign said the Justice select committee’s 2012 report of its post legislative scrutiny of the FOI Act called for the Act to be amended to give these time limits statutory force but the government has rejected the recommendation . The Campaign believes the government should reconsider its position. But it also believes the Information Commissioner should to do more to use his existing powers.
The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said: “The Information Commissioner should show that he is not prepared to tolerate departments sitting on FOI requests and internal reviews for month after month. He could prevent this happening, by serving legally binding enforcement notices on the authorities which show such obvious lack of enthusiasm for answering requests. But he has kept these powers in reserve for so long that most departments must now assume they will never be used, however feebly they perform. He could also deal with sluggish internal reviews by announcing that if a review has not been completed after 40 working days he will investigate the requester’s complaint without waiting for the authority’s response.”
1. The new figures are published in the Ministry of Justice’s report “Freedom of Information Statistics: Implementation in Central Government, 2012 Annual and October – December 2012 (Q4)” https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/192342/foi-stats-q4-oct-dec-2012.pdf
2. Government response to the Justice Committee’s First Report of the 2012-13 Session on its post-legislative scrutiny of the FOI Act, November 2012, Cm 8505.
3. The Campaign for Freedom of Information’s reaction to the government’s response to the Justice Committee’s report can be found at: https://www.cfoi.org.uk/foi260712pr.html and its detailed commentary can be found at https://www.cfoi.org.uk/pdf/foipostlegscrutiny_cfoicommentgovtresp.pdf
Maurice Frankel or Katherine Gundersen 020 7490 3958