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The Mad Hatter's time lesson

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Martin Rosenbaum | 08:45 UK time, Monday, 26 October 2009

Last week the information commissioner issued a decision in his oldest outstanding freedom of information case - one that his office has taken the not inconsiderable timespan of four years and five months to determine.

If anyone is still interested, the case involves a request to the Scotland Office for material relating to the Sewel Convention, the convention that Westminster does not normally legislate on matters devolved to Scotland without the consent of the Scottish Parliament.

The Mad Hatter illustration by Sir John TennielThe Scotland Office initially turned down the request, but did release some documents during the commissioner's investigation. And the commissioner has now decided [128KB PDF] that the government was right "for the most part" to keep the rest secret.

Earlier this month the information commissioner's office disposed of another case over four years old (possibly, like buses, after a long wait several ICO decisions come along at once). This one relates to the Hawk 128 advanced jet trainer aircraft, and the commissioner has again decided [116KB PDF] in favour of the partial release of further material.

However, as the latest snapshot [166KB PDF] of the ICO's caseload indicates, the commissioner is still dealing with several other complaints that date back to 2005, most of them involving the Cabinet Office (one of which is mine).

The new Commissioner Chris Graham made some interesting remarks about the delays in his office on an episode last week of the BBC Radio 4 programme Law in Action, which assessed the state of FOI nearly five years after it came into force.

Mr Graham admitted that his office took too long to consider complaints, saying "We're not as efficient as we should be". He added that measures were in place to speed up, and that he was also telling public authorities that they had to make the FOI process more straightforward.

He described freedom of information as a cumbersome process like "a complicated stately dance with many parties", so that "it's a question of 'Will you walk a little faster?, said the whiting to the snail'".

This reference to the Lobster Quadrille in Alice in Wonderland, where the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon dance slowly and sadly round Alice while treading on her toes, may indeed capture some of the spirit of how the FOI system operates.

But if Mr Graham and his team are really seeking inspiration from a character in Alice in Wonderland, perhaps they have most to learn from the Mad Hatter.

He informs Alice that as long as you keep on good terms with Time, he'll do almost anything you want with the clock. He can make it go from nine in the morning to half-past one, time for dinner, in a twinkling. Equally well, he can "keep it to half-past one as long as you liked".


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