ICO claims FoI is a priority as criticism of delays grows

john edwards 2The UK’s Freedom of Information (FoI) laws are being undermined by a lack of resources and Government departments obstructing lawful requests, and it is down to the Information Commissioner’s Office to sort out the mess.

That is the stark warning contained in an open letter coordinated by the online news organisation OpenDemocracy, and signed by 100 politicians, journalists, and campaigners, including shadow solicitor general Andy Slaughter, former Green party leader Caroline Lucas, ex-Brexit secretary David Davis, Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner, FT assistant editor Janine Gibson, Daily Mirror assistant editor Jason Beattie, and the Open Rights Group.

The letter is addressed to Information Commissioner John Edwards, who is responsible for enforcing FoI law that gives members of the public the legal right to request official information from public bodies.

The ICO investigates complaints against public bodies that have refused FoI requests and has the power to order them to release material if they have failed to comply with the law.

However, there are growing concerns that the FoI system is increasingly being frustrated by under-resourcing and deliberate non-compliance by Government departments.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information recently reported that backlogs at the ICO had become so extensive that it was taking an entire year for case officers to be assigned to review complaints.

The open letter calls for the ICO to assign more resources to FoI casework, monitoring of public bodies that fail to comply with the law, and stronger enforcement protocols for government bodies that repeatedly flout the law. It also recommends the extension of FoI to cover private companies that provide public services.

OpenDemocracy editor in chief Peter Geoghegan said: “As the British public is still being kept in the dark over Partygate, the importance of transparency has rarely been more obvious.

“FoI is a key tool for holding public bodies to account, but currently the ICO is not ensuring that the FoI Act delivers. We welcome the new Commissioner’s listening exercise and are keen to share our views on how FoI can be better policed.”

In response to the letter, Edwards said: “We acknowledge the concerns expressed in this letter. FOI plays an important part in civic engagement and holding public services to account, and we share the desire to see the law work effectively.

“The ICO’s role is to administer the law, and we always want to hear views that help us to understand where our role can be improved. I recognise the concern around timely access to information, and addressing this is a priority.

“We all benefit from a modern law, and I think there are suggestions in this letter that warrant further consideration. My office will be part of those discussions, though decisions about law reform are for ministers and Parliament to make.”

Related stories
Public sector teams see major rise in data requests
Firms braced for stampede of Covid-19 data requests
ICO pledges ‘light touch’ over coronavirus privacy fears
Brexit Party pummelled over backlog of data requests
Firms accused of handing out personal data willy-nilly
Met farce fuels data access request warning to brands

Print Friendly