Freedom of information?

23/10/2007 @ 12:09

Britains latest right to know laws are being undermined by a huge backlog of thousands of complaints brought by dissatisfied members of public, some of which are apparently taking up to two years to clear.

Many government offices or departments have refused to disclose documents concerning ministers meetings or other sensitive or embarrassing correspondence passing within Whitehall.

The Information Commissioner, who has the power to order Public Bodies and ministers to disclose this information, has been forced to write to members of the public to apologise that their complaints have not yet been allocated a case officer. The Commissioner has described the substantial backlog which has built up since the Freedom of Information Act went live in January 2005. Of 5,000 complaints received by the watchdog, almost 1,400 have yet to be resolved and include over 600 still awaiting allocation to an officer.

Recent figures suggest that 19 of the most complex and controversial cases relate to requests for sensitive information made over two years ago. A further 50 are more than a year old. Last year, the total list of unresolved complaints stood at over 1,200.
Campaigners are increasingly concerned that by the time these complaints are resolved, the information requested will already be out of date or of little ongoing interest to the applicant who originally requested it. “In some cases the information will be too late to be useful, which is potentially serious for the legislation, because it may put people off using the Act,” said Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

Some suspect that ministers have realised that it is an effective way to thwart attempts to expose politically embarrassing facts about the Government. “The Information Commissioner simply doesnt have the resources to handle the growing list of complaints, so that this backlog has developed. Its a shame, because the decisions being made are mostly very positive and are leading to increased disclosure.”

MPs say that by deliberately depriving the Information Commissioner of funds, the Government is helping to sidestep troublesome requests that it might otherwise have to comply with when the Information Commissioner finally rules on them. The serious lack of funds has forced Mr Thomas to prioritise his resources so that simpler cases are settled as quickly as possible while the more difficult requests, usually relating to government departments, are put on the difficult list where they wait a longer time to be resolved.

Ministers are still debating whether to bring in measures designed to restrict access to information under the new law by bringing in rules that will allow public bodies to refuse certain requests on financial or other grounds.