Working to make government more effective


FOIA fighters

How departments dealt with Freedom of Information requests in the first quarter of the new government.

As responsibility for Freedom of Information policy transfers from the Ministry of Justice to the Cabinet Office, Joe Randall looks the latest quarterly data on how government departments and other public bodies are doing.

As we have discussed in previous blogs, over 100,000 public bodies are subject to the Freedom of Information Act (2000). Despite responsibility for FoI policy transferring to the Cabinet Office in July (alongside the establishment of a cross-party Commission to review the Act) and sponsorship of the Information Commissioner’s Office transferring to DCMS, the Ministry of Justice continues to release statistics about the FoI requests received by government bodies. These statistics – the latest tranche of which were released on 24 September – cover 41 organisations, including all the major government departments and some arms-length bodies such as the Crown Prosecution Service and Ofgem. Between April and June (Q2) 2015, monitored government bodies received 11,500 freedom of information requests

In the second quarter of 2015, bodies monitored by the MoJ received 11,500 FoI requests. Of these, 8,065 were received by Government departments (by which we mean the main ministerial departments, HMRC and the Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales Offices). This is a 12% decrease on the number received by departments in the previous quarter, and 3% less than were received in the same quarter in 2014. In Q2 2015, DWP received the most FoI requests; the ‘territorial’ offices received the fewest
The Department for Work and Pensions received the most requests in the first quarter of 2015 (1,271) – the only department to receive over 1,000. The territorial departments (the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Offices) were the only departments to receive fewer than 100 requests, with the Wales Office receiving the fewest (54). Almost all the major departments received fewer requests than in the previous quarter – only DWP received more
Almost all the major departments experienced falls in the number of FoI requests they received in Q2 2015 compared to the previous quarter. The only departments in which the number increased were DWP, the Wales Office and the Scotland Office – in which FoI requests increased by 2, 6 and 25% respectively. The largest decreases occurred in DfT and Defra, each of which received 37% fewer FoI requests than in the previous quarter. In Q2 2015, three departments responded to all FoI requests ‘in time’, but MoJ was late to respond to more than a quarter
Organisations are required to respond to Freedom of Information requests within 20 working days, except where an extension has been permitted – requests answered within these deadlines are deemed ‘in time’. Three departments – DH, Wales Office and DCLG – had a perfect record in the last quarter, responding to all requests on time. Defra, DfE, and MoJ had the worst records on timeliness – Defra and DfE each failed to respond in time to over 17% of requests, while MoJ missed the deadline in 30% of cases. Compared to last quarter, DCMS and HMRC have improved on timeliness but MoJ dropped sharply
Last quarter we commented that both DCMS and HMRC were on a downward trajectory in terms of ‘timeliness’ of their responses to FoI requests. But this quarter showed improvements from both departments; HMRC improved by 3 percentage points and DCMS improved by 13. Both DCLG and Defra continued the turnaround in their recently poor record on FoI timeliness, with DCLG becoming one of only three departments with a 100% record in Q2 2015. One of the other departments with this strong score in Q2 is DH, which continues in the top position that it maintained throughout most of the last Parliament. MoJ fell to bottom place this quarter, answering only 70 percent of requests on time. This comes at a time when the Information Commissioner’s Office announced that it is to begin formally monitoring MoJ’s timeliness in responding to FoI requests, accusing the department of ‘unacceptable delays’. HMRC and Cabinet Office continue to withhold information in full in response to more FoI requests than other departments
Departments often make use of the many exemptions and exceptions under the Act and therefore withhold information – either in part or in full. The Cabinet Office – the department that took over freedom of information policy from MoJ earlier this year – is one of the departments that most regularly makes use of these exemptions and exceptions to withhold information. In Q2 2015 the Cabinet Office granted in full only 17% of requests for information under the Act, partially withholding information in response to 8% and fully withholding information in 65% of cases (10% are yet to be provided).
Cabinet Office (65%) and HMRC (59%) have consistently had the highest rates of ‘fully withheld’ responses to FoI requests, and this quarter HMT (51%) joined them in the group of departments withholding information in full in more than 50% of cases. Across all government bodies, the ‘personal information’ exemption is consistently used more than any other
The exemptions that were most commonly used in Q2 2015 to withhold some or all of the relevant information that government held were:

  • Section 40: Personal Information, which made up 49 percent of all exemptions claimed (1,363 requests)
  • Section 31: Law Enforcement, which made up 13 percent of all exemptions claimed (373 requests).
  • Section 22: Information intended for future publication, which made up 9 percent of all exemptions claimed (258 requests)

This was the first quarter of data released that allows us to begin to look at the new Government’s handling of FoI. With the report of the Commission on Freedom of Information due in November, Whitehall Monitor will continue to analyse departments’ records, including the effects of any changes to the FoI regime.

Abbreviations for Government departments can be found here.  

Related content