BBC BLOGS - Open Secrets
« Previous | Main | Next »

Ministers approve FOI answers

Martin Rosenbaum | 10:36 UK time, Wednesday, 10 December 2008

To what extent are government ministers personally engaged in overseeing responses to freedom of information requests?

Some light has now been shed on this question thanks to a Home Office internal report inadvertently sent to the BBC. And the evidence it contains suggests that many Home Office FOI replies may involve ministerial approval, except for those where the requester is simply told that the Home Office doesn't actually possess the information wanted.

This Home Office document was sent in error by an official to a BBC East Midlands journalist, Alistair Jackson. (I have redacted the names of some private individuals).

It itemises a batch of FOI requests to be answered by the Home Office, dividing them into those that need to be seen by a minister before the reply is sent and those that don't. As far as this group of 15 FOI questions is concerned, the only ones excluded from direct ministerial oversight are the five where the intended response is that the information is not held. Any answer involving the actual supply of information, or the refusal to provide material held, required ministerial approval.

In each case it is also noted whether the FOI request comes from the press, and (for those going to ministers), the 'level of controversy' is assessed. The most controversial one in this list concerns executive bonuses at the Criminal Records Bureau.

A Home Office spokesman told the BBC: 'They are sent for a Minister to note them before a response is sent. This is so that Ministers are aware of information that is being released into the public domain.'

This high level of ministerial involvement has implications for the amount of civil service resources devoted to FOI, as it increases the time spent on it by senior officials and those in ministerial private offices. It also risks causing delays.

An internal Home Office email accompanying the document also reveals that the Permanent Secretary has set a 90% performance target for replying within the statutory 20-day deadline.

The Home Office spokesman said: 'The Home Office is committed to responding to FOI requests within the timescales set by the Act but the complexity of our cases means that this will not always be possible. We have therefore set an internal target of 90 per cent which is achievable and challenging. Our performance has considerably improved (from 45% in 2005 to nearly 90% this year) since the Act came into force and we intend to make further progress.'


or register to comment.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.