Some major government departments have a record of frequent and lingering waits and unhelpfulness in their handling of Freedom of Information( FOI) requests.
This is clear from a brand-new BBC analysis of decisions issued in the past two years by the Information Commissioner’s Office which are systematically condemned the Cabinet Office, Home Office and Ministry of Justice for their “poor”, “disappointing” and “unacceptable” treatment of FOI applications.
And it raises questions about whether the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, is taking a tough enough approach to enforcing the law on these important districts at the heart of government, beyond criticising their process in individual complaints.
Information obtained by the BBC from the Information Commissioner’s Office likewise shows that the Cabinet Office and the Home office are the two public authorities in the country with the worst record of disappointment on timely cooperation with the commissioner’s investigations.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has the legal power to question “information notices” against public mass which are failing to provide material needed to assess disorders against them. Since May 2015 it has issued these formal observes in 50 completed actions. Fifteen were against the Cabinet Office and 11 the Main office. So the two departments accounted for more than half these measures against specially uncooperative public authorities.
As the department responsible both for FOI policy and for civil service efficiency, the Cabinet Office should surely be preparing a good example to the rest of Whitehall. However over the past two years it has faced some stinging disapproval from the information commissioner due to its persistently slow and unsatisfactory handling of information requests.
The commissioner’s decrees express letdown, concern and puzzlement at the Cabinet Office’s behaviour.
In dozens of instances the commissioner has condemned the Cabinet Office’s slow responses. In numerous different occurrences the Information Commissioner’s Office has described Cabinet Office slows as “unacceptable”, “extremely unhelpful”, “extreme”, “protracted”, “considerable”, “notable”, “unreasonable”, “unsatisfactory”, “excessive”, “prolonged” and “severe”.
In one case implying documents on the UK’s historic relations with India, the Information Commissioner’s Office decision alleged the Cabinet Office of “obvious unfairness” to the requester. The Cabinet Office transmitted most of the information requested to the National Repository after these claimants asked for an internal revaluation, it is therefore no longer hampered the material. The Information Commissioner’s Office described the Cabinet Office’s practice as “extremely unsatisfactory”.
In another historical occurrence involving the 1963 Profumo circumstance, the Information Commissioner’s Office rule said: “Taking such an inordinate sum of time to complete an internal inspect croaks altogether against the spirit of the FOIA[ Freedom of Information Act ], and in the commissioner’s deem, would amount to repudiating an applicant their information access rights.”
The Information Commissioner’s Office decision in a further subject include an indication that “the commissioner is concerned at the extremely lengthy delay”, including “although the commissioner cannot conceive of any justification for such a lengthy adjournment, she notes that the public authority has not even sought to provide one and that is also terribly concerning.”
These analysis are accompanied by the commissioner routinely telling the Cabinet Office to improve its processes, pushing it to act “more promptly”, handle solicits “appropriately” and in accordance with “expected standards”, to make “greater efforts to provide useful and meaningful admonition to requesters”, and to “take greater care”.
The Home office has also been subject to repeated disapproval from the commissioner in the past two years.
In a case relating to a particular car disintegrate with disputed occasions, the commissioner was concerned by “the very poor handling of this petition by the Home Office”, adding that “clearly it should not have been necessary for the complainant to frequently contact the Home Office in order to fasten a response” and that the initial response and internal inspect were both “unhelpful”.
In a case include the violent and sex offenders’ registry, the Information Commissioner’s Office ruling stated that “the commissioner regards a lag of closely connected to 14 months in responding to a request as unacceptable in any circumstances”.
A ruling on a client about asylum seeker statistics territory: “The commissioner is very disappointed that it took over a year for the purposes of an internal revaluation to be completed, which essentially reached the same conclusion as that reached during repudiation discover stagecoach, and lent very little by way of further reasoning.”
In numerous farther occasions the Home Office was criticised for “obviously defective reasoning”, “poor customer service”, “a poor grade of engagement”, producing an internal refresh “of no value”, and providing a “poor initial explanation”, while in others it “misread one part of the request” and “could have done much more to assist the complainant”.
And in a variety of rulings the Main office was deplored for lags who the hell is “unreasonable”, “considerable”, “very severe”, “lengthy”, “significantly excessive”, “clearly excessive” and “far too long”.
The pattern of stall at the Home Office is so extreme that extraordinarily in 50 occurrences decided by the Information Commissioner’s Office in the past two years, government departments plainly failed to provide the requester with a substantive response at all before the board members occurred.
The Ministry of Justice has a record on this which is nearly as bad, failing to respond in over 30 examples from the past two years until the commissioner was involved.
‘Inaccurate and misleading’
And in a series of verdicts altering the MoJ in these two years, the Information Commissioner’s Office has also often accused it of waits and shortcomings.
In one case to do with civil self-control guilds, the Information Commissioner’s Office decision said that “the commissioner is very disappointed with the MoJ’s handling of this request”, adding that the information furnished by the Ministry of Justice was “inaccurate and misleading” and this was “clearly unacceptable”.
In other different examples the Information Commissioner’s Office reported that the Ministry dedicated an “incorrect figure” to a requester, failed to stir “adequate searches” or “relevant searches” for intelligence, is the responsibility of “lengthy delays” and “significant delay”, was guilty of “poor engagement” with the Information Commissioner’s Office investigation, developed submissions which were “generic” or did not provide “the required level of detail or evidence”, and failed to ensure that a request was “properly considered”.
These pertains are not about contraventions on the principles of whether message should be disclosed or not, where the contentions can be finely adjudicated and the board members sometimes backs and sometimes annuls the department – this is to do with basic administrative processes.
Last month the Chair of the National Association of Data Protection and FOI Officers, Jon Baines, drew attention to some recent interruptions at the Home Office and MoJ, and complained about the Information Commissioner’s Office’s had failed to take stronger war against “authorities who seem to ignore their law functions much of the time”.
‘Flouting of the law’
Mr Baines excuses: “I was struck by how often these particular departments appeared to be plainly dismissing the ICO with self-evident immunity. I know FOI detectives at other public authorities who work their socks off to make sure “the organizations activities” comply with the law, and I wanted to question why there seems to be one regulate for some authorities and another govern for these government departments.”
Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information counsels the Information Commissioner’s Office to go further: “These departments plainly consider themselves too important to be accountable to the public and are only dismissing the FOI Act. This is not hard pressed FOI patrolmen struggling to meet deadlines, it looks like deliberate flouting of the law.”
Mr Frankel includes: “The commissioner can stop this at a stroking. She can issue enforcement observes which will disclose officials or officials to the risk of fines or even imprisonment if they don’t comply. The commissioner needs to start taking action.”
The Information Commissioner’s Office has been criticised in the past and sometimes ridiculed by the individuals who was of the view that for political concludes it fails to take a tough enough stance, distributing its full scope of legal powers, over the Cabinet Office’s flunks. In 2015 the then assistant commissioner Graham Smith told the ICO press office not to publicise enforcement action against the Department of Finance and Personnel in Northern Ireland, because advertising would “provoke more the issues and observation about deficiency of act against others , notably the Cabinet Office”.
Delays and failings
The Information Commissioner’s Office states it is likely to be gratifying the Home office and the MoJ to discuss overdue specimen. A representative says: “We perpetually evaluate the FOI performance of public authorities across the UK and taken any steps, including formal monitoring, where improvements are necessary. FOI law applies in the same path for all public authorities, regardless of length or profile.”
Other government departments are also guilty of postponements and flunks, but it seems clear that these three have particular problems.
Responding on behalf of the members of the three districts, a Cabinet Office spokesman said: “This government is committed to freedom of information and we are writing more data than ever before, on everything from ministerial joins to the money we invest. With enhanced transparency any such requests we receive under FOI ask for more and more complex info. We must match the public be required to construct information available and to protect sensitive information.”
As a declaration of interest I should state that I and BBC colleagues have obligated FOI requests to these departments which have been badly affected by postponements.
Research by George Greenwood
You can follow Martin Rosenbaum on Twitter as @rosenbaum6