Commissioner attacks Cabinet Office FOI delays
The department which is heading the drive towards government openness is condemned today by the Information Commissioner for not having "a clear and credible plan" to speed up its unacceptably slow handling of freedom of information requests.
The Information Commissioner Chris Graham is announcing today that he is targeting action on three public authorities because of their particularly bad record of FOI delays. One of these is the Cabinet Office. The other two are the Ministry of Defence and Birmingham Council.
Mr Graham says he is now considering what regulatory action to take against them, due to their persistent failure to reduce the excessive time taken to respond. He is especially concerned about the existence of long overdue FOI applications. This could lead to him issuing enforcement notices, which would legally require specified measures to improve their performance.
This is particularly embarrassing for the Cabinet Office and its minister Francis Maude, given their central role in promoting transparency in the public sector. The Cabinet Office is also responsible for answering freedom of information requests to the prime minister's office at 10 Downing Street.
These three authorities have been on a list of 33 public bodies that the Information Commissioner's Office has been intensively monitoring for months because of serious doubts over their FOI operations. Mr Graham says he is now satisfied that most of the list "have managed to overcome their problems".
Apart from the three now selected for tougher regulatory measures, there are four other exceptions. In a lesser sanction they are being asked to sign undertakings to improve further. These are Hammersmith & Fulham, Islington, Westminster and Wolverhampton Councils.
Mr Graham is now publishing a new list of 18 other bodies from across the public sector which will be monitored closely because of concerns about their delays in handling requests. These include the Department for Education, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and Nottingham Council, the one English council which said it would defy the government's request to publish detailed spending data.
This announcement is the next step in Mr Graham's campaign to speed up the freedom of information system, which he feels able to do following his success in reducing the enormous backlog of complaints his own organisation was grappling with. He says:
"Responding promptly to FOI requests is key to delivering citizens' rights. Too many public authorities are taking too long to decide either way whether to release information or to refuse requests."
The Cabinet Office maintains it is tackling its difficulties. A spokesperson says:
"While this is a long-standing issue for the department, the number of FOIs has also increased by over a third in just over 12 months. We take the Information Commissioner's comments seriously and we have already taken steps to improve our performance."
Birmingham Council says that it is committed to compliance with FOI and it accepts it needs to deal with overdue applications. But it also insists that a sense of perspective is needed, arguing that there are considerable cost implications stemming from a small number of complex requests at a time when the council has to make substantial savings.
Finally, to comment anecdotally from our own experience, I am not surprised that the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defence are two of the authorities focused on in this way.
Although at one point last year I felt that the Cabinet Office was getting prompter and more efficient, it appears to have declined again. One request that I sent to it last December has been subject to four extensions of the time limit and remains unanswered. As for the MoD, in the first two to three years of freedom of information its FOI operation was comparatively well organised and reliable to deal with, but its systems do seem to have deteriorated badly in the more recent period.