21 January 2015

Part of any government department’s work is to respond to inquiries from MPs, journalists and the public, which includes freedom of information requests. These allow anyone to request recorded information from public bodies, including government departments. Gavin Freeguard looks at the latest quarterly figures on the demands on, and responses of, different government departments. (Click on the images to enlarge.)

Between July and September (Q3) 2014, monitored government bodies received 11,234 freedom of information requests – only two quarters this parliament had fewer requests. Volume of FOI requests 2010-15 Altogether, over 100,000 bodies are subject to the FoI Act, but the MoJ only publishes statistics for 41 of them – government departments and some other bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive, the Charity Commission and the Crown Prosecution Service. According to the Ministry of Justice, more than 400,000 requests have been submitted in the ten years since the Act came into operation on 1 January 2005, and now run at a rate of around 1000 per week. In the third quarter of 2014, public bodies monitored by the MoJ received over 11,000 requests. Government departments (we’ve included the main ministerial departments, HMRC and the Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales Offices) received just under 8,000 of them. (Fewer requests were lodged this quarter than in the previous quarters – since the Coalition came to power, the highest number of requests were received in Q1 2012 (over 14,000). In Q3 2014, MoJ received the most requests of any government department, closely followed by DWP. Volume of FOI request by department Q3 2014 The number of requests made to different government departments – and therefore the capacity they need to deal with them – varies considerably. MoJ received the most requests in Q3 2014 (1234), with DWP the only other department to receive over a thousand requests (1104). The three territorial departments – the Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales Offices – each received 40 or fewer requests. Of the other government organisations in the MoJ’s quarterly report (and not shown on this graph), only two – the Health and Safety Executive (1243) and National Archives (783) received more than 200 requests. Volume Depts 2010-15 As we can see, MoJ and DWP have been among the departments with the heaviest volume of requests throughout this parliament but are now the clear frontrunners, having emerged from a cluster of departments also including the Home Office, MoD and DfT. DWP and DH both experienced a spike in requests in 2012 Q1, DH nearly trebling its previous number, as those departments introduced controversial new policies. Defra responded to the smallest percentage of requests on time last quarter – but DCLG’s timeliness has been declining for some time. Timeliness Q3 2014 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 said to be ‘in time’. In the most recent quarter, both the Wales Office (which received 33 requests in the last quarter) and DH (451) answered all requests in time. Two departments slipped below 75%: DCLG (72%) and Defra (62%). Timeliness of FOI responses In Defra’s case this appears to be a one-off; in DCLG’s, it is part of a longer decline over the course of the parliament, down from 97% in the third quarter of 2010. Both DfE and MoD have improved their performance over the period (from under 70% to around 90%). Both the Home Office and Cabinet Office have recovered from earlier quarters where their ‘in time’ rate headed down towards (or in one case below) 50%. HMRC, Cabinet Office and MoJ consistently withhold in full the largest percentage of information. FOI request outcomes Q3 2014 There may be very good reasons why departments cannot release information – there are many exemptions and exceptions under the Freedom of Information Act (as we will see). Nonetheless, many requests are refused. In the most recent quarter, HMRC and DH had the highest percentage of requests where they withheld the requested information in full. Cabinet Office and MoJ – the departments responsible for the government’s transparency and FoI policies respectively – were next, withholding information in full in response to more than 50% of requests. CO, MoJ and HMRC have regularly been the departments withholding most over much of the parliament – for DH, it has been much more variable, with a noticeable spike in Q1 2012 when it received its greatest number of requests. (The BBC’s Chris Cook has recently blogged about his experience of requesting information from the Cabinet Office.) Across all government bodies, the ‘personal information’ exception accounts for more than any other. Exemptions Government bodies can cite a number of sections of the Freedom of Information Act (and Environmental Information Regulations) that exempt or except information from being released. In the third quarter of 2014, section 40 – which exempts personal data from being released – accounted for more than five times as many exemptions as any other section. Exemptions over time Most exemptions remain reasonably static from quarter to quarter. The most noticeable exception to this is for ‘formulation of government policy’ in Q1 2012 – in no other quarter are there more than 300 exemptions, but in this quarter there were nearly 750. The vast majority of these – 522 – were at DH. As we have already seen, this was the quarter when it received its highest number of FoI requests and withheld the highest percentage as the government introduced controversial reforms. As for the departments which withhold information in full in response to large percentages of requests, there are particular exemptions which are more pronounced than elsewhere. At HMRC, it is information prohibited from disclosure by legislation; at MoJ, court records and information intended for future publication; and at Cabinet Office, the formulation of government policy. As the Freedom of Information Act celebrates its tenth anniversary, people remain divided on its legacy: Tony Blair now ‘quake[s] at the imbecility’ of introducing it, while journalists and civil society groups have made great use of it (although perhaps not as much as expected). It also divides government departments into those who receive many and those who receive few requests, those who respond on time and those who don’t, those who respond in full and those who withhold in full and under what exemptions they do so. This raises questions about whether departments have the right capability to deal with the number of requests they receive. Whether the continued move towards open data will lead to fewer requests – as departments publish more information more regularly – remains to be seen, especially as campaigns for more data to be released in particular fields (such as contracting) take off. We’ll be keeping an eye on how this changes in future.

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