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The gap between guidance and practice

Martin Rosenbaum | 11:11 UK time, Wednesday, 18 April 2007

The latest set of government statistics on freedom of information show the huge gap between the performance of central government on delays to FOI requests compared to the standards demanded by the Information Commissioner.

According to the figures published today, in 2006 there were at least 749 cases where government departments or other central government bodies gave themselves an extension of more than 20 working days for the time taken for assessing the public interest on disclosing requested information (Table 7). This means taking more than 40 working days overall.

Yet the Information Commissioner's guidance on time limits for assessing the public interest test, issued in February, states: 'Our view is that public authorities should aim to respond fully to all requests within 20 working days. In cases where the public interest considerations are exceptionally complex it may be reasonable to take longer but, in our view, in no case should the total time exceed 40 working days.'

Of course the Information Commissioner's position would carry more moral force if his own office didn't suffer from enormous backlogs and delays.

The 2006 numbers also show (Table 5) that in 23 per cent of internal reviews of a decision to withhold information from an FOI requester, that withholding is partly or entirely overturned. There are two ways of looking at this. One is that badly informed or over-cautious junior officials are unnecessarily turning down FOI requests at the initial stage. The other is that the internal review process is working well as a fair re-examination of the initial decision, sometimes reaching different judgments on matters on which reasonable people might disagree. And there's a third way - which is that elements of both are true. In my view the third way has it. But whatever the explanation it does suggest that it is worth asking for an internal review if the reasons supplied for initially turning down an FOI request appear inadequate.

In overall terms the quarterly statistics indicate that the level of FOI requests to central government and the other bodies monitored by the Department for Constitutional Affairs seems to be fairly stable at around 8,000 per quarter.

Comments   Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 01:47 PM on 18 Apr 2007,
  • Jim wrote:

If there were 8,000 requests received each quarter, the number of cases extended beyond 40 days comes to about 2.3% - a tiny proportion and surely not worth making a fuss about! More interestingly, how many of those 8,000 cases were from you or Nicola?

Jim - Probably about 90 or so.

  • 3.
  • At 05:30 PM on 24 Apr 2007,
  • jenny wrote:

I think it’s a bit unfair to have a pop at the ICO. Do you know why they have such enormous backlogs?

I know the BBC took up about seven months of the ICO’s time before providing me with the information I had requested from them under the FOI. And it was similar story with the other FOI request I submitted a few years back, this time to a government agency.

Perhaps public bodies need to stop being petrified of providing the public with unprocessed data?

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