UPDATED: Government departments rapped for slow response to FOI requests

News 21 Dec, 2012

The Information Commissioner's Office places four public authorities under surveillance for three months next year.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is to monitor how quickly four public authorities react to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests after failing to meet their response targets.

The Department for Education (DfE), the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) in Northern Ireland and Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council will be monitored during the three months to 31 March 2013.

We may take action if we don't see improvements.

The ICO claims all four either failed to respond to 85 per cent of FOI requests within 20 working days or “significantly” exceeded the time limit on numerous occasions.

The data protection watchdog also claims to have received complaints about three of the four authorities about the timeliness of their responses.

Meanwhile, the OFMDFM is reported to have responded to just over half of all the FOI requests it received in 2011 on time.

Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, said the ICO wants to see evidence the organisations have taken steps to improve their response rates during the monitoring period.

“[We] may take further action after this monitoring period has expired if we don’t see the necessary improvements in each authority’s standard of compliance,” he said.

Graham also expressed disappointment in DfE, DWP and Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council for failing to capitalise on the work they have done in the past to speed up their FOI response rates.

“This is not good enough and we expect these authorities to take the necessary measures to ensure that they are meeting their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act,” he said.

“We will provide support and advice where we can, but reserve the right to take further action if they fail to step up to the mark,” Graham concluded.

IT Pro approached all four organisations for comment, but was still awaiting a response from the DfE and OFMDFM at the time of writing.

In a statement to IT Pro, a spokesperson for the DWP, said the department takes its FOI responsibilities very seriously.

"The number of requests for information received by the DWP has trebled over the last four years, from around 1,500 in 2008 to a predicted 4,700 in 2012," the spokesperson said.

“This means the DWP now receives more FoI requests than any other central Government department, which has clearly presented a challenge."

Meanwhile, a representative from Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council, said it was "disappointed" at not staying on top of the number of FOI requests it receives.

"As such, we welcome the Information Commissioner’s offer of support and advice, and will work with his officers to ensure we meet the required standards," they added.