Statistics show that the ICO is regularly delayed – sometimes very severely so – when responding to FOIA requests made to it. Is there a need for a review of the ICO’s own compliance?
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is tasked with regulating and enforcing the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). The ICO is also – perhaps unusually for a regulator – subject to the law it regulates (it is a public authority, listed in Schedule One to FOIA). This means that – sometimes – the ICO must investigate its own compliance with FOIA. It also means that its own compliance with FOIA, and the seriousness with which it treats its own compliance, is bound to be viewed by other public authorities as an example.
FOIA is, let us not forget, of profound democratic importance. The right to receive information is one of the components of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has previously said
openness of information, through FOI laws and other instruments, is vitally-important not only for government accountability in the moment, but also for the long-term health of our democracy… since information is power, the right to information goes to the heart of a democracy’s healthy functioning.
FOIA lays down timescales for complying with a request for information. The core one says that information must in general be provided within twenty working days. In that same speech Ms Denham referred to timeliness (“It is rightly said that access delayed is access denied”) and the benefits of publicising delays by authorities:
Reporting publicly on timeliness has proved to be a powerful tool for improving timely disclosure of information. And public authorities have used their poor grades to push successfully for more resources where the demand has outstripped supply.
Indeed, she has previously taken government departments to task for their FOIA delays
I think that central government though has got away with – I’m not going to say murder – I think they’ve got away with behaviour that needs to be adjusted…I know which organisations we need to focus on…
The ICO certainly has enforcement powers, and a policy which informs it when action is appropriate. The Freedom of information regulatory action policy (which doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2012) says that enforcement may be appropriate where there are “repeated or significant failures to meet the time for compliance” and that, when deciding to take enforcement action, the ICO will take into account such factors as
the severity and / or repetition of the breach; whether there is evidence that obligations are being deliberately or persistently ignored; whether there would be an educative or deterrent affect; whether it would help clarify or test an issue; and whether an example needs to be created or a precedent set.
With all of this in mind, one organisation the ICO apparently needs to focus on is itself.
Regrettably, and rather oddly, the ICO doesn’t publish figures on its own FOI compliance, except at a very high level, and combined with other types of access requests, in its annual report). This is despite the fact that the Code of Practice issued under section 45 of FOIA, observance of which the ICO is specifically tasked with promoting, says that public authorities with more than 100 members of staff should published detailed statistics on compliance.
However, what evidence there is indicates a repeated, and serious, failure by the ICO to comply with the timescales it is supposed to enforce on others. Of the formal decision notices issued by the ICO against itself, in 2020 and 2021, 50% (10 out of 20) found a failure to comply with the statutory timescale (and two further ones appear – from an analysis of the notices – to have involved delay, without resulting in a specific finding of such). And it is worth noting that these are formal decisions where requesters have asked for formal notices to be issued – it is almost inevitable that there will be similar delays in a significant proportion of those requests which don’t make it to a formal decision.
Indeed, analysis of recent requests to the ICO made on the request website WhatDoTheyKnowsimilarly shows delays in approximately half the requests. But even worse, many of those delays are of an extraordinary length. In two cases, requests made in February 2021 have only been responded to in November – delays of ninemonths, and in other cases there are delays of six, four and two months.
COVID has – no doubt – affected the ICO, as it has affected all organisations. But if the ICO needs extra resource to comply with FOIA, it has certainly not indicated that. Its published approach to regulatory compliance during the pandemic (not updated since June this year) says that where public authorities have backlogs, the ICO expects them to “establish recovery plans focused on bringing the organisation back within compliance with the Freedom of Information Act within a reasonable timeframe”. In the accompanying blogpost the Deputy Commissioner said that
we have seen more and more organisations adjusting to the circumstances, and returning to offering the transparency…our [own] recovery plan has had a positive impact in removing and reducing backlogs
If that is the case it is hard to know why the WhatDoTheyKnow examples (and one’s own experiences) show precisely the opposite picture.
What is also of concern – though this is an issue for policy-makers and Parliament – is that there is nothing that an individual can do when faced with delays like this, except complain – once more to the ICO. FOIA expressly does not permit individuals to take civil action against public authorities for failure to comply – the only recourse is through the ICO as regulator. Short of bringing judicial review proceedings, citizens must just suck it up.
In 2016 the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information said that FOIA was “generally working well”, but that it “would like to see a significant reduction in the delays in the process”. In 2016, that was not addressed at the ICO, but now it most certainly could be. That Independent Commission has long been dissolved. Meanwhile, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is conducting an inquiry into the Cabinet Office’s FOI handling.
But, maybe, there actually needs to be some Parliamentary oversight of the ICO’s own FOI compliance.
The views in this post (and indeed most posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.