Monday, December 11, 2006

Parliamentary update

Some recent PQS about FOI:

7th December

Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South, Liberal Democrat) Hansard source
To ask the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs how many applications were made to the National Archives for Freedom of Information Act disclosures of extracts from the 1911 census for specific addresses in England or Wales in each month between January 2005 and November 2006; and when the National Archives began to include in refusal notices particulars of the complainant's right to appeal to the Information Commissioner.

Bridget Prentice (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs)
Detailed as follows is the number of requests under Freedom of Information relating to information from extracts from 1911 census returns from specific addresses.
1911 FOI requests

January 0
February 3
March 11
April 7
May 9
June 11
July 32
August 33
September 19
November 1
December 7
Total 2005 148

January 23
February 16
March 7
April 11
May 5
June 1
July 5
August 7
September 15
October 16
November 3

Total 2006 109

Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South, Liberal Democrat)
To ask the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs what recent assessment she has made of the (a) benefit to the public and (b) effectiveness of section 50 decision notices; and if she will make a statement.

Bridget Prentice (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs)
The Information Commissioner, under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, section 50, must inform a complainant that he has not made any decision as a result of a complaint, or he must issue a notice stating his decision and the steps which must be followed to comply with it to the complainant and the public authority. The Commissioner is independent in his decision making. Under section 54 of the Act, if a public authority fails to comply with a decision notice, the Commissioner may certify this fact to the court. The court may inquire into the matter and deal with the authority as if it had committed a contempt of court. The Commissioner has not yet had cause to use this power. In addition, under section 57 the complainant or the public authority may appeal to the Information Tribunal against a decision notice.

28th November

Caroline Spelman (Meriden, Conservative)
To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government how many Freedom of Information Act requests received by her Department in the last 12 months were cleared by special advisers.

Angela Smith (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government)
There is no requirement or mechanism in Communities and Local Government procedures for Freedom of Information Act requests to be cleared by special advisers. Advice is received by Ministers from officials and special advisers in accordance with the Civil Service Code and the Guidance for Special Advisers.

21st November

Oral Answers to Questions — Constitutional Affairs
FOI Complaints
2:30 pm

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield, Conservative)
How many freedom of information complaints have been referred to the Information Commissioner; and if she will make a statement.

Vera Baird (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs)
The Information Commissioner received 4,599 Freedom of Information Act complaints between 1 January 2005 and 31 October 2006.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield, Conservative) Hansard source
I am grateful to the Minister for her answer. She will have read the Select Committee report "Freedom of Information—one year on". The Constitutional Affairs Committee received evidence that people had
"waited months for the Information Commissioner to start investigating their complaints."
In the conclusion to that report, the Committee said that her Department should be taking
"a more proactive role in ensuring that Government Departments co-operate fully with the Commissioner".
What steps has she taken since 28 June, when that report was issued, to ensure just that?

Vera Baird (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs)
There was a backlog during 2005, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is well aware, and another £100,000 was given very quickly to the Information Commissioner to help him get that backlog under control. Since then he has had an extra 11 per cent.—£850,000—in 2006-07 for the same purpose, and we are in discussions with him about how to optimise those processes to speed them up.
I was last asked questions on this subject only a little over a month ago, when it was pointed out to me that there were in particular some difficulties with health authorities. One of the hon. Gentleman's Back-Bench colleagues had sent a lot of requests that had not been responded to. Since then, I have caused a reminder to go out to those authorities in particular, that we do expect prompt results. If this is not moving too tangentially away from what the hon. Gentleman said, the Information Commissioner has announced that he is going to strengthen his enforcement strategy. I think he previously wanted cultural change and guidance to work, but now, where recalcitrant local authorities and "persistent offenders", as he puts it, in the public sector are not responding, he will serve enforcement notices and use his powers.

Andrew Gwynne (PPS (Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, Minister of State), Home Office, Denton & Reddish, Labour) A real issue, and a cause of concern to the Information Commissioner, is that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 does not cover those functions formerly of local authorities that were transferred to trusts such as Stockport Sports Trust, which is now making decisions behind closed doors. Does the Minister agree that changes to freedom of information rules are required to bring such bodies into line with those provisions and similar ones, such as the access to information provisions in the Local Government Act 1972?

Vera Baird (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs)
My hon. Friend makes a strong point. I think that he has made it before, and I agreed with him then, as I do now, that just because we have brought 110,000 public bodies within the ambit of this provision does not mean that we have gone as far as we need to go. There is an analogous problem with the application of the Human Rights Act 1998 to the private suppliers who deliver public functions, and I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are looking into those problems.

Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire, Conservative)
As the Minister knows, it is important that her Department sets an example in the field of freedom of information as it is the responsible Department. She has stressed—she did so last month—how committed Ministers are to that. So why does her Department have a worse record than any other in granting freedom of information requests, even when the information is readily available? The average rate for all Departments is 62 per cent. but the Department for Constitutional Affairs has never managed to answer even half of such requests, and in the most recent quarter it scored a miserable 38 per cent. If the Department for Transport can have a result of 78 per cent. of requests answered where the issue is resolvable, why is the DCA such a sink Department in this area? Is it not time that it got its act together?

Vera Baird (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs)
I dare say that, because it is full of lawyers, it is careful and cautious in its responses and it takes its time. In fact, over the last quarter 92 per cent. of all Government requests were responded to in time—they met the statutory deadline or a permitted deadline extension—and I reckon that 92 per cent. is rather a good proportion.


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