Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Freedom of Information Works, say MPs, but complaints and delays must be tackled and Records Management Improved

Press release:

The Constitutional Affairs Committee today publishes its report into the progress of the new Freedom of Information Act, just over a year after it was enacted. The legislation is proving useful and effective and has led to the release of significant and valuable information.

However, the Committee expresses concerns over the time it has taken for some requesters to obtain information, with internal reviews in some organisations being delayed indefinitely and months taken to assess public interest factors. The Committee regards this as contrary to the spirit of the Act and welcomes a commitment from the Information Commissioner to adopt a firmer approach to enforcement, and put pressure on public authorities to deal with requests more quickly. The DCA must work with the Information Commissioner to raise standards so that authorities consistently provide a more timely response to requesters.

The Committee finds that the complaints resolution provided by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) during 2005 was unsatisfactory, with many requesters and public authorities having to wait months for the Commissioner to begin investigating their complaints and the quality of some investigations was inadequate. The Committee is surprised it took so long for the backlog of complaints to be addressed and is not convinced that enough resources have yet been allocated to clear this problem. The Commissioner is expected to publish a progress report in September of this year which the Committee will use to assess the success of the ICO’s recovery action plan.

The Committee is not convinced the relationship between DCA and the ICO is working effectively. It recommends that the Government consider making the Information Commissioner directly accountable to, and funded by, Parliament.

The Committee also expresses concern that there is apparent complacency in Government about preserving digital records, indicating a lack of leadership in improving records management in public authorities. There is a serious possibility that electronic records over 10 years old will essentially become irretrievable as data degrades and technology moves on, and no satisfactory long term strategy has been implemented to manage this problem.

Rt Hon Alan Beith MP, Chairman of the Committee, said:

Freedom of Information is clearly working, although there is room for improvement. After a year of the Act we welcome the constructive and positive way that new and significant information is being released and used. However, our FOI legislation can only be as good as the quality of the records management it gives us access to, and only if people can get access to the information in a timely way. Long delays in accessing information or having complaints resolved go against both the spirit and the letter of the Act, and must be resolved. Records management, and particularly digital records management, must be improved.

The Committee sees a case for changing the reporting structure of the Commissioner’s Office, making it accountable to and funded by Parliament, rather than the DCA.

Download report(PDF)

Committee website

Conservative Party Press release: "Concern at Labour's plans to subvert the Freedom of Information Act"

Some media coverage:

The Indepedent
- Freedom of information office 'secretive'
"A secretive Whitehall department set up by the Government to handle sensitive and difficult requests under the new Freedom of Information Act is itself in breach of the new legislation, a parliamentary committee says."

The Guardian
- MPs condemn plans to limit freedom of information
"We recommend that problems with 'frivolous' requests should be dealt with through the existing provisions in the Act," the MPs concluded."We do not consider that this is an appropriate reason for reviewing the fees regulations."

Will post some comment later when I've digested the report.....

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