Action urged over Whitehall FOI failings

The Home Office
Image caption The Home Office is beset by serious delays in many FOI cases

Major government departments are continuing to demonstrate persistent delays and unhelpfulness in their responses to information requests, according to research conducted by the BBC.

Last June we reported on how the Home Office, Ministry of Justice and Cabinet Office were frequently criticised by the Information Commissioner for their inadequate handling of FOI applications.

Our analysis of decisions issued since then by the commissioner shows that the poor performance of these three departments has continued.

The Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham is being criticised by openness campaigners for not taking stronger action over the repeated failings.

The Home Office has a particularly extreme record and has been rebuked by the Information Commissioner's Office in several dozen cases over the past 12 months.

The ICO describes delays faced by requesters to the Home Office in various cases as "unacceptable", "extremely lengthy", "particularly severe" and "inexplicable and unjustifiable".

'Extremely disappointing'

In some instances the Home Office took several months to reach a decision and reply. In numerous other cases it failed to respond at all.

The commissioner also reprimanded the Home Office over responses which were "unhelpful", showed "poor handling", "did not provide any explanation" or which contained a "lack of detail", "no reasoning", an "extremely disappointing rationale", or information which was "not accurate".

Numerous ICO decision notices contain statements along the lines that the commissioner has made a record of the problem and that "this issue may be revisited should evidence from other cases suggest that this is necessary" or "this may form evidence in future enforcement action against the HO should evidence from other cases suggest that there are systemic issues within the HO that are causing delays".

Since this is often repeated in the ICO decisions, it is not clear what further evidence of "systemic issues" ought to be required.

'Grossly excessive'

The Ministry of Justice has also been frequently rebuked by the Commissioner for its failures to comply with the FOI law.

The ICO criticises the ministry over delays which were "very considerable", "far in excess of the requirement", "extremely lengthy" and "grossly excessive and entirely unacceptable".

As with the Home Office, there are numerous cases where the Ministry of Justice failed to send any response before the ICO's formal decision was issued. Similarly, many decision notices repeat the familiar statement that the failing has been noted and the issue may be revisited should evidence from other cases indicate there are systemic issues

Image copyright ICO
Image caption Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "We received nearly 5,000 FOI requests last year, one of the highest figures across Whitehall. We surpassed the ICO's high target for response times last year and have improved even further since - responding to 93% of requests on time in the latest figures."

The Cabinet Office also comes in for continuing criticism over its poor record on FOI. This includes delays which were "clearly against the spirit and intention of FOIA", "excessive" and "unacceptable".

It is also reprimanded for "poorly conceived submissions", lack of "meaningful detail", being "illogical", "erroneous", "unsustainable", providing "generic" arguments, handling which "clearly fell short", and having "wrongly interpreted" correspondence from a requester.

This is despite the fact that the Cabinet Office is responsible for government FOI policy and should therefore set an example to other public authorities.

'Contempt'

Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information said that Elizabeth Denham should take stronger action: "Departments have discovered that they can repeatedly ignore the regulator - and nothing happens. The solution is in the commissioner's hands. She should promptly serve chronic offenders with enforcement notices and threaten court action if they fail to comply.

"She should also report the problem to Parliament and encourage a select committee to ask ministers in front of the TV cameras why they are treating the public's right to know with contempt."

An ICO spokesperson said: "The ICO can take monitoring action if a public authority's performance needs to improve. Whether or not disclosure applies to a request is not always straightforward. That is why we work with departments to improve processes so decisions on what information can be released under FOI can be made more effectively and efficiently."

Requests to these departments which have been badly affected by delays include some submitted by myself and by BBC colleagues.

The government departments involved have been approached for comment.

Research by Patrick Cowling

  • You can follow Martin Rosenbaum on Twitter as @rosenbaum6

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