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.
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.
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.
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:
- DWP’s incorrect use of the ‘commercial interests’ exemption to refuse information on contractors delivering Personal Independence Payments assessments
- Cabinet Office’s incorrect use of the ‘formulation of government policy’ and ‘communications with Her Majesty’ exemptions to withhold information about attendance at Honours, Decorations and Medals committee meetings.
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.
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.