Cabinet Office rapped for slow FOI request response times

Clock approaching deadline time

The Cabinet Office has blamed Margaret Thatcher's death and the Jimmy Saville scandal for falling behind on responding to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

The Government department was one of three public sector organisations rapped by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) for taking too long to respond to FOI requests.

The other two were Hackney Council and the Crown Prosecution Service, after all three received a "significant number" of complaints about the timeliness of their responses.

Under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, public authorities must respond to a request for information within 20 working days.

The ICO has confirmed all three face having their FOI request response times monitored between 1 January 2014 and 31 March 2014, and could face enforcement action if the delays continue.

Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, said a 20 working day turnaround on FOI requests is an essential part of maintaining a "transparent and open" government.

"While extensions may sometimes be justifiable for particularly complex requests, these three authorities have been selected for monitoring after serious shortcomings were identified in the time each of them has been taking to respond to FOI requests," Graham revealed.

He also expressed his disappointment at the Cabinet Office's performance on this matter, having already fallen foul of the 20 working day deadline three years ago.

"On that occasion, the Cabinet Office signed an undertaking to raise their game. Their inclusion on the latest monitoring list should act as a warning to others that lessons learnt from monitoring have to be sustained," he added.

In a statement to IT Pro, a Cabinet Office spokesperson defended its performance, claiming it had only fallen below par during one quarter in 2013.

"During this quarter we had a 23 per cent increase in requests most of which focused around the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, the Leveson Inquiry and information about Jimmy Saville," the statement reads.

"Even then we still answered more than eight out of ten requests on time.

"We have made significant efforts to address the increased number of requests and the most recent data shows an improvement on that quarter," the statement continued.

Even so, the department promised to work with the ICO during the monitoring period.

Ian Williams, director of finance and resources at Hackney Council, told IT Pro it has already started taking steps to address its slow response times.

"We are aware of delays in responding to FOI requests and launched our own review of the service in November 2013. New measures have since been put in place which will enable us to process requests in a more timely manner," said Williams.

"We trust the Information Commissioner's Office will note this improvement during the monitoring period."

IT Pro contacted the Crown Prosecution Service for comment on this story, who said a 42 per cent upturn in FOI requests since 2011 has put significant pressure on its response times.

"We have recently recruited further staff to address the increase in workload and are already seeing improvements in the timeliness of our responses during this monitoring period," the spokesperson added.

Caroline Donnelly is the news and analysis editor of IT Pro and its sister site Cloud Pro, and covers general news, as well as the storage, security, public sector, cloud and Microsoft beats. Caroline has been a member of the IT Pro/Cloud Pro team since March 2012, and has previously worked as a reporter at several B2B publications, including UK channel magazine CRN, and as features writer for local weekly newspaper, The Slough and Windsor Observer. She studied Medical Biochemistry at the University of Leicester and completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Magazine Journalism at PMA Training in 2006.