The Campaign for Freedom of Information has analysed the appalling delays experienced by the majority of people who have had to resort to making a Complaint to the Information Commissioner's Office, regarding their Freedom of Information Act requests.
The report analyses nearly 500 formal decision notices issued by the ICO in the 18 months to 31 March 2009. The decisions were made under the FOI Act and the associated Environmental Information Regulations. It finds that -
- on average it took 19.7 months from the date of a complaint to the ICO to the date on which the ICO's decision on the complaint was issued
- in 46% of cases it took between 1 and 2 years from complaint to decision
- a quarter of formal decisions took between 2 and 3 years while 5% of cases (23 complaints) took more than 3 years
- the longest case took 3 years and 10 and a half months
- only 24% of decisions were issued within 12 months of the complaint.
The report also found that on average the ICO's investigation into a complaint did not begin until 8 months after the complaint had been received. In 28% of cases, there was a delay of more than a year before the investigation began and 19 cases waited more than 18 months. One complaint had been with the ICO for 22 months before the investigation began.
According to the report's authors, Maurice Frankel and Katherine Gundersen: "A delay of 2 to 3 years or more in reaching a decision, as happens in over a quarter of cases means that even if the information is ultimately disclosed it may no longer be of interest or use to the requester. Requesters who experience such delays may be so frustrated by the experience that they become reluctant to use the Act again or to complain to the ICO about refusals. Delays may also mean that authorities carry on repeating mistakes over long periods, affecting many requests, before the ICO puts them right. Finally, if authorities calculate that they can safely withhold information for several years before the Commissioner compels disclosure, a minority may do so deliberately, just to 'buy time'."
Whilst only 10% of complaints result in a Decision Notice, these cases take longer to resolve than we would like
Despite the improvements already made with additional funding from the Ministry of
Justice, the popularity of FOI means that the number of complaints we are receiving is
Our experience with the long, frustrating delays regarding the bureaucratic Freedom of Information Act process, is not made any less unacceptable, because other people seem to be suffering the same.
The ICO should not be allowed to refuse a Complaint, if a public body has exceeded the 20 working days or "no more than 40 working days" reasonable suggested time limit for Internal Reviews. At the very least they should officially remind the public body of this limit, and criticise any further delays, as deliberate flouting of the spirit of the FOIA when the ICO finally does issue a Decision Notice.
The Ministry of Justice also needs to provide sufficient monetary resources to allow the ICO to clear its backlog of FOIA complaints, by hiring its own, independent staff,rather than by embedding Whitehall civil servants "on secondment".