Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Parliamentary debate on the Information Commissioner's salary

The House of Commons has approved a motion to increase the Information Commissioner's salary from £98,000 to £140,000 a year which will be backdated to November 2007. During the debate, the issue of delays in the ICO's investigation of FOI complaints was raised by MPs.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I am hoping that because his office and his salary are being debated in the House of Commons, the commissioner will understand that one of the consequences of a pay rise backdated by 12 months is that he must deal with the one fundamental weakness of his office, which is the backlog of work.

I am told that in the last year the commissioner had nearly 25,000 inquiries and complaints, and that he prosecuted 11 individuals and organisations and received just over 2,500 freedom of information complaints and closed about the same number. However, although 30 per cent. of the decisions were in favour of the complainant and 25 per cent. upheld public authorities’ original decisions, only 13 per cent. of valid cases were closed within 365 days. As he is to be given a vote of confidence by the House, I hope that those figures will give him cause to reflect on whether he should insist on the resources to support him. Those resources would come from the Government, and I hope that the Secretary of State will respond to that.

Colleagues, including my persistent hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), tell me that there are regularly delays of one year, two years, or two and a half years.
Mr. Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): Although the salary of £140,000 does not look great in comparison with those of local authority chief executives, BBC executives and so on, we have to pursue the question raised by the hon. Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey and for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris).

What has happened? There is a serious problem—the problem of delays. Is that the responsibility of someone whom I have always regarded as a fine public servant with a fine sense of public ethos? The statistics tickled out by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey are important...

A snapshot of the problem can be seen from the brief analysis that the Campaign for Freedom of Information carried out into decision notices published by the Information Commissioner during September 2008. Of those, 20 specifically identified the date on which the requester complained to the Information Commissioner’s office. As we have been told, in the longest decision there were 32 months between the date on which the requester complained to the Information Commissioner and the date on which the decision was issued. The next longest took 30 months, the third longest took nearly 27 months and the fourth and fifth longest decisions took 26 months. Only six of the 20 cases were dealt with in less than 12 months.

...In 2007, the Information Commissioner’s office’s objective was to deal with 80 per cent. of freedom of information complaints within 365 days, indicating that it expected to take more than a year in 20 per cent. of cases. However, according to the Information Commissioner’s office’s corporate plan for 2008 to 2011, that target has been reduced; the current target is to deal with 70 per cent. of FOI complaints within a year. The new target therefore assumes that 30 per cent. of complaints will now take more than a year.
Read the full debate

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