Thursday, July 15, 2010

ICO FOI caseload progress

More on publication of the Information Commissioner's 2010 Annual Report which outlined the significant progress that has been made in reducing the backlog of FOI complaints, which was seriously undermining the effectiveness of the FOI Act. The report states that the ICO now has 1,035 open cases, 439 fewer than at the start of the year. Despite a 20% increase in complaints to the ICO in 2009/10, there was a 39% increase in the number of cases closed. 628 cases were closed with a decision notice, more than double the 295 in the previous year. The report contained the following table showing the age profile of open cases on 31 March 2010 compared to 1 April 2009.

Another table shows that 82% of cases closed were less than a year old. This is a tremendous turnaround from the position highlighted in a report on 'Delays in investigating Freedom of Information Complaints' published by the Campaign for Freedom of Information in July 2009 and extremely welcome news for requesters.

The frustration that delays cause requesters was highlighted by Ann Clwyd MP in a debate in Westminster Hall on 13 July 2010.
...the advent of the Freedom of Information Act should be celebrated. It was one of the triumphs of the Labour Government, and it enables us, the public, to subject public authorities to the kind of scrutiny that was never possible before. It gives us access to all the inconvenient and embarrassing bits of information that some public authorities would rather not disclose.

However, public confidence and the effectiveness of the Act are being undermined by the difficulty in pursuing complaints against authorities that refuse to release information that the Act requires them to release. The problem is that it is just too easy for public authorities to obstruct the process. If they ignore enough letters, miss enough deadlines and pretend that they do not really know what is happening and why, they will be able successfully to evade an information request for a long enough period to diminish the detrimental impact, reduce embarrassment and avoid the accountability that release of the information would cause...
Responding to the debate, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Jonathan Djanogly said:
The current economic climate is, of course, extremely challenging, but the Government are committed to providing the ICO with the best deal possible to maintain its progress and to fulfil its vital role. I have to say that this is not just about money; it is also about people and expertise. I am sure that the right hon. Lady will be interested to know that three experienced caseworkers have been seconded from central Government, helping to cut through the ICO's backlog.

The commissioner has made great strides to improve the efficiency of his operation to provide increasing value for money. That is evidenced in the remarkable increase in case clearance that I have just mentioned.

...It is important that we continue to support the commissioner, as his work is at the heart of the Government's transparency agenda. The commissioner will publish his annual report tomorrow and the right hon. Lady will have the opportunity to see it. I am sure that she will be pleased to note the steps that the Government have already taken and will continue to take to make more information available to the public, shedding light on public affairs, from the corridors of Whitehall to the meeting rooms of borough councils and local schools.

The right hon. Lady specifically asked me to say whether the commissioner has enough power to regulate the freedom of information regime effectively. We believe that, as things stand, that is so. The powers are there.
Read the full debate here.

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