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We didn’t start the FOIA

Freedom of information requests in the final quarter of the Coalition.

Joe Randall looks at the quarterly data on freedom of information requests – released yesterday – and assesses how government departments and other public bodies are doing.

Between January and March (Q1) 2015, monitored government bodies received almost 13,000 freedom of information requests – among the highest levels since 2010

As we have discussed in previous blogs, over 100,000 public bodies are subject to the FoI Act. The Ministry of Justice releases statistics covering 41 entities, including all the major government departments. Some of these departments are grouped in this data with some of their arm’s-length bodies, but other bodies such as the Crown Prosecution Service and OFGEM are reported separately (see here for full details of the bodies included in freedom of information statistics). In the first quarter of 2015, public bodies monitored by the MoJ received 12,881 FoI requests. Of these, 9,177 were received by government departments (by which we mean the main ministerial departments, HMRC and the Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales Offices). This is an 18% increase on the last quarter of 2014, and slightly above average for the last parliament. However it is slightly below average for the first quarter – which tends to be a busier time. In Q1 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 (1,248), with MoD and MoJ the only others to receive over 1,000. The territorial offices were the only departments to receive fewer than 100 requests, with the Wales Office receiving the fewest (51). Almost all the major departments received more requests than in the previous quarter – only HMT and HMRC received fewer
Almost all the major departments experienced rises in the number of FoI requests received in Q1 2015. The only two departments in which the number fell were the Chancellor’s departments, the Treasury and HMRC, in which FoI requests dropped four and nine percent respectively. The largest rises occurred in the Northern Ireland and Wales offices, both of which received 50 percent more requests than in the previous quarter. DWP retained its status as the department receiving the most information requests. DWP held this top position for most of the coalition government period, however MoD rose to become one of the top two departments this quarter – a position it hasn’t occupied since 2011. In Q1 2015, two departments responded to all FoI requests ‘in time’, but DCMS 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’. Two departments – DH and DfID – had a perfect record in the last quarter, responding to all requests on time. HMRC, Defra, MoJ and DCMS had the worst records on timeliness, failing to respond in time to over 20 percent of requests. Compared to recent trends, Defra and DCLG have improved on timeliness but DCMS dropped sharply this quarter
We’ve previously commented that both DCLG and Defra were on a downward trajectory in terms of ‘timeliness’ of their responses to FoI requests. But this quarter showed considerable improvements from both departments, each of which improved by more than 20 percentage points. The sharpest decline in timeliness this quarter came from DCMS, which fell by over 20 percentage points and only answered 71 percent of requests on time. But looking back over the coalition government period, there are a number of instances where departments dropped sharply, only to recover quickly again. The other significant fall this quarter came from HMRC, which appears to be experiencing a slower, steadier decline in the percentage of requests it responds to in time. HMRC and Cabinet Office consistently withhold information in full in response to more than half of their requests
Departments often make use of the many exemptions and exceptions under the Freedom of Information Act and therefore withhold information – either in part or in full. HMRC (59%) and the Cabinet Office (54%) have consistently been two of the departments with the highest rate of ‘fully withheld’ responses to information requests over the last parliament.
All three of the departments with the highest rate of ‘fully withheld’ responses in the last quarter of 2014, granted or partially granted a higher proportion of information requests in the first quarter of this year. Across all government bodies, the ‘personal information’ exemption is consistently used more than any other
The exemptions that were most commonly used in Q1 2015 to withhold some or all of the relevant information that government held were:

  • Section 40: Personal Information, which made up 47 percent of all exemptions claimed (1,370 requests)
  • Section 22: Information intended for future publication, which made up 11 percent of all exemptions claimed (318 requests)
  • Section 31: Law Enforcement, which made up 9 percent of all exemptions claimed (249 requests).

The use of most exceptions remained reasonably static from quarter to quarter, and the personal information exception was deployed the most throughout the last parliament. The second most commonly-claimed exception – ‘intended for future publication’ reached its highest point in Q1 2015, in the run-up to the General Election. This was the final quarter of data we needed in order to analyse FoI under the whole coalition government period. And with departments' handling of FoI in the news this week, following allegations that No. 10 Downing Street automatically deletes emails (FT, £), Whitehall Monitor will continue to analyse their responses to freedom of information requests as they continue under the new government.

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