Home Office under scrutiny over FOI response times

Clock approaching deadline time

The Home Office, Sussex Police and South Tyneside Council are all being monitored by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) following concerns over the timeliness of their responses to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

The ICO said it has received a number of complaints in relation to these bodies, alleging that they have been in breach of Freedom of Information Act regulations which stipulate public authorities must respond to an FOI request within 20 working days.

We hope that these authorities can make the improvements the public has a right to expect.

The office also said it had received a smaller number of complaints involving delays that exceeded the statutory limit by a significant amount of time.

Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, said: "The government has made a clear commitment towards making the UK's public sector one of the most transparent in the world. Responding to FOI requests within the time limit of 20 working days is an important means of achieving this objective.

"We hope that these authorities can make the improvements the public has a right to expect. We should not have to order authorities to respond to requests in time."

The monitoring period covers the three months between 1 July 2013 and 30 September 2013 and will examine the authorities' responses to FOI requests in this time span.

In response to the news,

A Home Office spokesperson said: "We recognise the importance of answering all FOI requests accurately and within time limits. We have seen a significant increase in the number of FOI requests recently up 20 per cent during the last 12 months which has impacted on how quickly we have been able to respond.

"We are therefore improving our capacity to respond so that we can bring performance back on track."

However, spokespeople at Sussex Police and South Tyneside Council indicated cuts in government funding have had a negative impact on their ability to respond to requests rapidly.

Alan Ladley, force information manager at Sussex Police said: "At a time when we have had to make enormous cuts to the Sussex Police budget, it is difficult to balance the staffing needs of all departments, but we welcome the ICO's oversight of our FOI service and recognise the need for improvement.

"All areas of the Force have been advised of the necessity for timely responses when requested by the FOI team and we hope that over the next few months we will see a marked improvement in our service."

Councillor Iain Malcolm, leader of South Tyneside Council said that while the authority takes its FOI responsibilities "very seriously" and remains "fully committed to responding to ... requests within the statutory timescales", it has faced the second biggest reduction in government funding in the whole country and said its key priority "has to be to protect frontline services and safeguard the vulnerable".

"We deal with over 1,000 requests each year and many of them are complex and require information from several different Council departments," said Malcolm.

"[Nevertheless], we are taking steps to improve our performance. We will work closely with the Information Commissioner over the coming months and are confident we will get back on track soon," he added.

The ICO also issued an update regarding the organisations that were put into a monitoring period in December last year.

According to the office, Wirral Borough Council has been required to sign an undertaking to introduce further improvements to make sure FOI requests are responded to in a timely manner, as 75 per cent were still falling outside the 20 day time limit.

The ICO said it is satisfied the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education have improved their performance and that they have taken sufficient action to remedy any backlog.

However, it "remains concerned about the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister [in Northern Ireland] and its failure to respond to a number of outstanding requests which involve substantial delays, including one request that remains unanswered over 500 working days after it was received."

The ICO is now deciding what further action it will take in this case.

Jane McCallion
Deputy Editor

Jane McCallion is ITPro's Managing Editor, specializing in data centers and enterprise IT infrastructure. Before becoming Managing Editor, she held the role of Deputy Editor and, prior to that, Features Editor, managing a pool of freelance and internal writers, while continuing to specialize in enterprise IT infrastructure, and business strategy.

Prior to joining ITPro, Jane was a freelance business journalist writing as both Jane McCallion and Jane Bordenave for titles such as European CEO, World Finance, and Business Excellence Magazine.