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.