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How Whitehall responds to Freedom of Information requests

We unpack the data.

With the Freedom of Information Act under review by the government’s Independent Commission on Freedom of Information, Ollie Hirst and Joe Randall look at the latest quarterly data on how well government departments and other public bodies are responding to FoI requests.

Between July and September (Q3) 2015, monitored government bodies received 11,990 freedom of information requests.

In the third quarter of 2015, government departments (as defined by Cabinet Office, who publish the numbers) received 8,687 FoI requests, with other government organisations receiving 3,303 – a total of 11,990. This was more than the quantity received in the second quarter of 2015, but fewer than the peak of 12,881 in the first quarter of the year. A four-quarter rolling average shows that the average quantity of FoI requests is around the level that it was at the end of 2011.

In Q3 2015, DWP received the most FoI requests; the ‘territorial’ offices received the fewest.

In line with previous quarters, the Department for Work and Pensions received the most requests in the first quarter of 2015 (1,322). MoJ was the only other department to receive over 1,000 requests. The territorial departments (the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Offices) received the fewest requests, while Defra, DECC, DfID and DCMS also received fewer than 200 requests.

Most departments received more requests than in the previous quarter.

The six departments receiving the most FoI requests – DWP, MoJ, MoD, HO, DfT and HMRC – all received more this quarter than in the previous quarter, as did the Treasury, Cabinet Office, and DECC.

In Q3 2015, two departments responded to all FoI requests ‘in time’, but MoJ was late to respond to more than a third.

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’. Two departments – Wales Office and DCLG – had a perfect record in the last quarter, responding to all requests on time. Five departments – MoJ, Defra, Scotland Office, DWP and HO – failed to reach the minimum standard of 85% of responses being made ‘in time’ (the general requirement for public bodies, below which formal monitoring is considered). Defra and MoJ had the worst records on timeliness – Defra failed to respond in time to over a quarter of requests, while MoJ missed the deadline in around 35% of cases.

Compared to last quarter, the timeliness of responses from MoJ has continued to decline, while DWP and Defra have also dropped sharply.

At the top of the scale, DCLG has experienced a 28 percentage point increase since this time last year in its proportion of responses made ‘in time’, securing its current position as one of the two departments with a 100% ‘in time’ response rate. DCMS has similarly continued its upward trajectory in terms of the ‘timeliness’ of its responses to FoI requests, from a low of 71% in the first quarter of 2015 to 91% in the latest quarter. Unlike these departments, Defra has not continued the turnaround in its recently poor record on FoI timeliness; after recovering to 83% in the second quarter of this year, it has now fallen back to 74%. Four of the five largest departments – DWP, MoJ, MoD, and HO – also saw a decrease in the timeliness of their responses this quarter, with DWP experiencing the sharpest decline (9 percentage points). MoJ continued in bottom place in the third quarter of 2015, answering only 65% of requests on time – a five percentage point fall from the previous quarter. This comes at a time when the Information Commissioner’s Office is already monitoring MoJ’s timeliness in responding to FoI requests, accusing the department of ‘unacceptable delays’.

HMRC and Cabinet Office are the departments that most often withhold information in full in response to FoI requests.

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. In Q3 2015 the Cabinet Office granted in full only 19% of requests for information under the Act, partially withholding information in response to 13% and fully withholding information in 57% of cases (11% are yet to be provided). HMRC is the department that has fully withheld information in the highest proportion of cases – 70% in this quarter.

HMRC (70%) and Cabinet Office (57%) have consistently had the highest rates of ‘fully withheld’ responses to FoI requests. HMT (56%) is the only other department to have withheld information in full in more than 50% of cases this quarter, continuing a rise in the proportion of responses withheld since the second quarter of 2014.

Across all government bodies, the ‘personal information’ exemption is consistently used more than any other.

The exemptions that were most commonly used in Q3 2015 to withhold some or all of the relevant information that government held were:

  • Section 40: Personal Information, which made up 38% of all exemptions claimed (1,363 requests).
  • Section 31: Law Enforcement, which made up 10% of all exemptions claimed (373 requests).
  • Section 22: Information intended for future publication, which made up 7% of all exemptions claimed (258 requests).

This was the second quarter of data released that allows us to begin to look at the new government’s handling of FoI. As the Commission on Freedom of Information continues its work into 2016, the Institute for Government will continue to consider the debate around FoI and analyse departments’ records, including evaluating the effects of any changes to the FoI regime.  

Abbreviations for government departments can be found here.

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