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FOI is falling

Martin Rosenbaum | 14:10 UK time, Tuesday, 19 December 2006

The number of freedom of information requests to central government seems to be slowly dropping.

This is revealed in the latest set of quarterly FOI statistics, issued today by the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

In July-September 2006 there were 7,641 FOI requests to central government departments and other central bodies monitored by the DCA. This is the lowest quarterly figure since the law came into force at the start of 2005. It is about 4 per cent down on the previous quarter and 5 per cent down on quarter 3 of 2005.

The DCA argues that within this figure the number of requests to departments themselves has been rising slightly, while the number to other central government bodies has been dropping more sharply. This is actually true just for the year-on-year comparison. In the last quarter both sets of figures registered a fall.

And interestingly, on closer examination of the figures, the rise in departmental requests compared to last year stems almost entirely from a near-doubling of requests to the Home Office.

Possibly this reflects the fact that the 2006 Home Office figures include requests received by the Criminal Records Bureau and the UK Passport Service, which are not in the 2005 data. If so, this would suggest that the apparent increase is at least partly artificial.

Possibly it reflects the various troubles experienced by the Home Office earlier this year, which may have prompted an increased number of requests from concerned citizens and even journalists. If so, this would imply that increased public interest in using FOI is associated with times when government is not 'fit for purpose'.

Possibly it reflects (and I say this from personal experience) a tactic of counting as a 'non-routine information request' (which is what the statistics cover) the kind of simple request that other departments treat as routine or as the provision of advice and assistance. If so, this may also explain the Home Office's considerable improvement in the proportion of requests which it answers within time.

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