27 April 2018

Less than half of Freedom of Information requests are being granted, with responses often late. Aron Cheung argues that the Information Commissioner’s Office must continue to hold the Government’s feet to the fire.

In the final three months of 2017, the Government fully or partially rejected over half of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests, more than in any quarter but one in the past seven years. The percentage of requests being refused has increased by over a third since 2010.

Percentage of FoI requests withheld by government depts, Q3 2010 to Q4 2017

In addition to rejecting more requests, more departments are failing to respond to requests on time (within 20 working days or permitted extensions).  

Departments have also made noticeable changes in the way they respond to FoI requests. DCLG, DCMS, Defra and DH have gone from granting more than 60% of requests in full in 2011, to fewer than 40% in 2017. The Cabinet Office, FCO, DIT, DExEU and BEIS consistently withhold their responses.

Percentage of FoI requests granted in full, Q3 2010 to Q4 2017

 

The Information Commissioner has a key role to play

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has many responsibilities. It is currently investigating how data analytics is used in political campaigning, following allegations about how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook users’ data during the 2016 EU referendum campaign. In May, it will also become responsible for enforcing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) when it is rolled out in the UK.

Alongside all this, it is the body responsible for ensuring that the Government is compliant with the Freedom of Information Act. Anyone submitting an FOI request can appeal to the ICO if they aren’t happy with a department’s response.

With the Government refusing requests more and more, the percentage of decisions being referred to internal review by departments has increased (as the chart below shows). There has also been a modest increase in the percentage of decisions being overturned at internal review.

Internal reviews and ICO appeals for FoI requests, 2010–17

The most striking development in the last year, however, is a jump in the percentage of appeal cases where the ICO overturns a decision taken by the department. This has more than doubled from 8% in 2016 to 17% in 2017, meaning that the ICO is increasingly of the view that departments are wrongly using exemptions to withhold information. Overturned decisions in this period include:

Timeliness of FoI responses is also getting worse

The ICO recently increased the Government’s target for timely responses to FoI requests from 85% to 90%. Nine government departments promptly failed to meet this target, including MoD and the Home Office. Departments that routinely fall below the target can be subject to special monitoring by the ICO. The departments that performed worst on timeliness – DExEU, DIT and BEIS – were among those that also refused to grant information most often.

Timeliness of response to FoI requests, Q3 2010 to Q4 2017

It is vitally important that the ICO continues to monitor FoI responses – especially given the Government’s apparent direction of travel. And the latest FOI figures reflects a wider trend of government not being as transparent as it has committed to. In 2010, David Cameron obliged government departments publish key transparency datasets, such as organograms and expenditure over £25,000. This commitment has been reiterated under Theresa May, however our Whitehall Monitor 2018 report finds that these are often being published late if at all.

Comments

The Government should lead by example. Since the Paradise Papers and other revelations, it seems the Government are just as bad with regard to transparency. Although the Beneficial Ownership Register is a step in the right direction, the bar is too high with regard to businesses declaring the information - it should apply to all companies, both big and small, as it often because a business is small that it can get away with corruption. The other issue is that the Government is afraid of truth - when politicians are asked questions, they do not give a straight answer. The media always want to bring people down and also they take at face value of what Government says - take for example the case of the chemical attacks in Syria and the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.