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Constitutional Affairs Committee wants more speed

Martin Rosenbaum | 01:12 UK time, Wednesday, 28 June 2006

There is no doubt what the main theme is of the House of Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee in their report on freedom of information. That theme is delay, delay, delay.

Delay in public authorities replying to initial FOI requests. Delay in internal reviews in response to complaints. And delay in the appeals process at the Information Commissioner's Office.

The report is called 'Freedom of Information – One Year On.' Yet it is interesting that the MPs have decided to say very little about whether public authorities are now actually revealing the kind of information which should no longer be secret.

Instead they decided to focus their inquiry on what they clearly perceive as the key issue - the speed, or lack of it, with which anything gets disclosed. They have produced some pointed criticism and interesting recommendations.

Notably they remark sternly that 'The 20 day response deadline is a statutory requirement and not merely a target'.

Some of the most interesting recommendations focus on the role of the Department for Constitutional Affairs. The Committee want the DCA to collect and publish statistics on how long departments take for assessments of the public interest which are permitted to go beyond the normal 20-day limit. And they want similar data published on the time taken for internal reviews.

They also want the Department's Central Clearing House to be more openly accountable about its work, a topic I have discussed before.

Although the Committee criticise the performance of the Information Commissioner's Office in 2005 as 'unsatisfactory', the Commissioner, Richard Thomas, does not come out of the report particularly badly.

The MPs seem ready to adopt a 'wait and see' approach to his plans to clear the backlog of cases. They are also sympathetic to his predicament as a regulator both independent of but also funded by the DCA.

The Committee however do not appear to have been impressed by the evidence given to them by the junior DCA minister, Baroness Cathy Ashton.

The MPs are deeply worried about the long-term accessibility of digital information recorded on forms of technology which have become outmoded – and they clearly regard Cathy Ashton as being complacent when she told them it was not a significant problem.

Despite all their concerns, the MPs do stress they regard FOI as a significant success, which has brought constructive and beneficial releases of information.

The Committee also take the chance to comment on the DCA's ongoing review of the regulations on fees for FOI requests. They make clear their opposition to any change in the fees regulations, in case any such change reduces the benefits of FOI.

The report quotes extensively from and was clearly strongly influenced by the evidence received. The BBC was one of the organisations which gave written evidence to the Committee, although it was not invited to give oral evidence too.

This is not the first time that the Constitutional Affairs Committee has reported on freedom of information. In December 2004, just before the FOI Act came into force, they warned that the state of readiness was patchy.

They predicted that some parts of the public sector, such as the Police, were much better prepared than other parts, such as the NHS. This certainly proved to be a fair analysis of the situation, so perhaps the Committee can claim a record of getting things right on FOI.

Comments   Post your comment

I`ve noticed that particular areas of the public sector with poor histories of dealing with complaints or critisisms seem to be the ones lagging behind in FOI requests & disclosures.

For example, the NHS in Scotland have prevaricated many FOI requests for documentation over the Hep C Blood Products Scandal, where it has since been claimed by the Scottish Executive that key documents have been destroyed.

I think not. The conclusion which most people have come to is that such documents either imply or confirm the NHS were aware of the contamination of blood products at the time, and the denial is simply a now customary Government exercise in avoiding liability & blame which regrettably, FOI has failed to reveal so far.

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