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Nuns, dustmen, horse trainers and FOI

Martin Rosenbaum | 17:02 UK time, Monday, 20 April 2009

The people who have to wait longest for the Ministry of Defence to answer their freedom of information requests are MPs and peers, followed next by journalists and lawyers.

On the other hand academics, businesses, current/former civil servants, non-profit organisations and private individuals find their FOI questions to the ministry are generally answered more quickly (or at least less slowly).

That's one of the findings in a fascinating new analysis of how the MoD handles FOI requests. The study was carried out by Professor Alasdair Roberts, an international authority on freedom of information laws based at Suffolk University in Boston.

The research is based on data which Professor Roberts obtained from the MoD's IT system for managing FOI requests, the Access to Information Toolkit. It covers over 15,000 applications received during 2005 to 2008.

The figures show that 15% of requests from MPs/peers and 10% of requests from journalists take over 60 days to process, significantly higher proportions than for other categories of applicant. As Professor Roberts notes, this may be because "legislators and journalists may make more complex requests" or it might be because there is "more rigorous internal scrutiny of requests from such sources".

Other interesting points revealed in this research include the following:


  • The flow of FOI applications to the MoD is declining gently, but this overall pattern masks major variations between different categories of requester.

  • The number of requests from private individuals is in "distinct long-term decline", while there is no significant drop-off in those from academics or businesses.

  • The only category of requester with a clear seasonal pattern were academics, who seem to favour the turn of the year for their peak FOI activity.

  • The proportion of applications answered in full by the MoD - 60% - is high compared to the US and Canadian defence departments.

Nun and dustmanBut the strangest revelations come from the categorisation employed by the MoD for different kinds of FOI applicants. According to the research, the following terms have all been used by the MoD as a category under the heading "Applicant Type"

  • American-styled seducer
  • Arabian horse show trainer
  • Brazilian army
  • Dustman in Chiswick
  • Estonian military cadet
  • Foreign and Commonwealth Office
  • Housewife
  • Jamaica Defence Force
  • Mother
  • Nigerian merchant navy
  • Nun
  • Paranormal investigator
  • Pakistan navy
  • Postman
  • Royal Canadian military police

Sadly, however, I suspect the data may be insufficient to reach soundly-based conclusions on the MoD's comparative treatment of freedom of information requests from some of these groups.

Are requests from nuns generally processed more quickly than those from dustmen in Chiswick, Arabian horse show trainers or the Nigerian merchant navy? We may never know the truth.

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