Biting the Hand that Feeds – a Risky Business?

Bloggers in the fields of UK Information Rights can sometimes be critical of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) (we can?). But that’s really because we love the IC and his people. Or, at least, we strongly support the existence of the office, and the principle functions it carries out. There may be disagreements on the decisions and actions taken, but many frustrations are caused by the restrictions on his powers, or as a result of the limited funding he gets.

I noticed earlier this week that Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, had told parliament that his Department’s shocking record on compliance with Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) timescales (in the last quarter only 48% of response met the 20-working-day deadline) was in part as a result of the fact that

The Cabinet Office deals with FoI requests in relation to cabinet papers under the last government which takes some time to be dealt with because we need to consult with ministers in the last government.

As I suggested on twitter, it would be nice if we all could blame our predecessors for our heavy workload (I for one still can’t forgive Rupert Baxter for handing over that tricky planning file to me in 2002) but this really is not good enough as an excuse.

In the same period in which the Cabinet Office achieved 48% compliance, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) achieved a still very poor 75% (by contrast the Department of Health achieved 99%, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport 96% and the Department for Work and Pensions 93% – all these figures are from the MoJ’s own quarterly stats) The MoJ is the sole provider, by means of grant in aid, of funding for the IC’s Freedom of Information work (the IC also receives approximately £15 million from the notification fee that data controllers pay to operate under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), but this is ring-fenced for DPA work). This FOI grant amounted last year to approximately £5.5 million. However, that grant is at risk of reduction, and the IC is concerned about that. His risk register has recently been disclosed and this shows as a “red risk” a “gap between FOI resources and incoming casework affects FOI and DP casework…” and it is clear that this risk potentially leads on to others, such as the “ICO reputation suffers because some of the risks facing the ICO materialise…”. None of this is real news, of course. Christopher Graham himself told the Home Affairs Select Committee

Like all public authorities, we are having to take our slice of the cuts. We are responding to that constructively, trying to achieve better for less. But the fact is that if we are asked to do more and more under the transparency and accountability agenda, we will need the resources to do it.

Now consider this: the IC is under a statutory duty to operate so as to ensure the observance by public authorities of their requirements under FOIA. One means by which he does this is to monitor authorities which repeatedly or seriously fail to respond to freedom of information requests within the appropriate timescales. This monitoring can be a precursor to further action, and the Cabinet Office was subject to such further action when it signed an undertaking with the IC in June this year to improve its performance.
The IC says that he is likely to monitor authorities if, among other criteria, “(for those authorities which publish data on timeliness) it appears that less than 85% of requests are receiving a response within the appropriate timescales”. Well, as we have seen, it certainly appears, from the published data, that less than 85% of requests to the MoJ are receiving a response within the appropriate timescales. Interestingly, in the previous quarter the figure was 83%, the quarter before that 87% and the quarter before that 88%. A downward trend like that is arguably further evidence of a need for monitoring, and it would be interesting to know if the IC takes this into account, or whether, perhaps, he takes an annual average from those quarterly stats.
So a simple question arises – when the next group of authorities whose compliance is begin monitored is announced, will it include the MoJ? Will the IC risk biting the hand that feeds him?

2 Comments

Filed under Freedom of Information

2 responses to “Biting the Hand that Feeds – a Risky Business?

  1. I’m certain that the ICO will subject the MoJ to monitoring – they’ve been bold enough to monitor the Cabinet Office. My question is whether an undertaking really constitutes action – it’s bad PR, but if the Cabinet Office fail to comply, what happens? Will the ICO issue an enforcement notice against either the Cabinet Office or the MoJ? I doubt that very much.

  2. Pingback: Some observations on the MoJ £180,000 data protection “fine” | informationrightsandwrongs

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