Freedom of information 'must improve'

The Freedom of Information Act is “clearly working” as it arms journalists and citizens with “valuable information” but Whitehall must do more to achieve a ‘culture of greater openness.’

Such is the verdict from an influential panel of MPs, which yesterday echoed Lord Falconer’s recent assertion that the Act has been a “success” since it came into force in January last year.

But publishing their report into the Act’s effectiveness, MPs on the Constitutional Affairs Committee said delays in releasing information was the most common problem for requesters.

“Many” cases brought to the MPs’ attention showed the 20-day response time was not being met, either because public bodies lacked experience or re-interpreted the code of practice.

Some requesters were told an internal review needs to be carried out, meaning their requests were delayed indefinitely or for months on end, so officials could assess “public interest factors.”

These delays are “contrary to the spirit of the Act” and “undermine its effectiveness,” the MPs said, despite conceding the response rate should improve as officials become more familiar with it.

However the MPs also questioned the role of a “clearing house” – set up by Lord Falconer to advise on which cases can be referred by other departments, to help in assessing whether information should be released, or withheld.

While there is no evidence to prove the clearing house blocks requests or causes delays to the release of information, there is, paradoxically, no evidence to “refute those allegations,” the MPs found.

For the purposes of their enquiry, the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) revealed the clearing house had advised on 3,100 cases.

But one academic who recently filed a similar request was refused the information, because its disclosure “could prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs,” he was told.

Reflecting on the DCA’s verdict, Professor Alasdair Roberts said:” The claim that the release of such data would prejudice public affairs is… ridiculous on its face.

“How for example would the release of data showing the length of time required for handling of requests by the DCA clearing house prejudice pubic affairs?

“It would be more accurate to say that withholding of such information allows DCA and the Cabinet Office to escape accountability regarding the operation of their central clearance procedures…”

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for the Freedom of Information, experienced first-hand the office’s reach after he requested the internal reviews for each government department.

“I started getting my requests refused and discovered that the clearing house had advised departments to refuse to release their internal reviews to me, on the grounds that the information was not held in the form requested,” he said.

In light of the complaints, the MPs tabled recommendations about how the clearing house should be managed in the future, which include publishing quarterly statistics on the cases it handles.

“We do not consider that these explanations are consistent with the exemptions defined in the Act,” the MPs said, referring to the department’s official response to the criticism.

“This is an unacceptable position for the government department in charge of promoting FOI compliance. The clearing house must comply fully with the letter and the spirit of the FOI Act, be openly accountable for its work and respond to any individual requests for information which it receives in full accordance with the Act.”

Elsewhere, the Committee found the complaints process provided by the Information Commissioner’s Office was unsatisfactory throughout last year.

“Many requesters and public authorities have to wait months for the Commissioner to begin investigating their complaints and the quality of some investigations was inadequate,” it said.

“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.”

Further concerns were voiced over the government’s “complacency” about preserving digital records, the watchdog found, and “indicating a lack of leadership in improving records management in public” bodies.

The MPs warned: “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.”

Alan Beith MP, chairman of the committee, summed up their findings: “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.”

 

29th June 2006

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