The British government’s handling of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests has been described as “unacceptable” and “inadequate” by the watchdog charged with its regulation, an openDemocracy analysis can reveal.
An extensive review of hundreds of rulings from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), made over a two-and-a-half year period, offers a scathing assessment of the government’s adherence to the Freedom of Information system, with dozens of highly critical judgements of key departments.
Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office – which is responsible for FOI policy – is a regular offender, with the ICO suggesting it has a “lack of understanding of the basic principles” of the Freedom of Information Act. The department’s reluctance to cooperate with the ICO’s investigations is also underlined by a number of rulings.
Earlier this week, more than a dozen current and former national newspaper editors signed an openDemocracy public letter calling for MPs to urgently investigate the British government’s handling of Freedom of Information requests, and the role of a secretive Cabinet Office ‘Clearing House’ that vets ‘sensitive’ requests from journalists and others. Legal experts say the operation is likely in breach of data protection legislation.
In a response posted on Tuesday, the Cabinet Office denied that its approach “undermines the FOI Act or the statutory rights of journalists to inquire into the action of government”. Michael Gove’s department said that it was “fully committed” to transparency.
However Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell today described openDemocracy’s findings on ICO rulings “extremely concerning”.
“If parliament were functioning properly – which it obviously can’t at the moment – ministers would be feeling the heat for allowing officials to disrespect the system of FOI in this way.
“Whether one approves or disapproves of Freedom of Information, it is the law of the land and this sort of obfuscation is clearly unacceptable. FOI response rates are at an all-time low, and this threatens press freedom. The time has come for parliament – through its relevant committees – to investigate, without delay.”
The ICO has often stopped short of taking concrete steps to sanction public bodies’ poor FOI practice. It has issued only four enforcement notices since the FOI Act came into force in 2015.
Jon Baines, an information rights expert at the law firm Mishcon de Reya, said that the ICO needed to force government departments to comply with FOI legislation. “The fear has to be that other public authorities will question why they should bother with compliance, when there are no apparent consequences for ignoring the law,” he said.
openDemocracy’s analysis of hundreds of ICO decision notices paints a picture of delays, failures to respond to requests and mismanagement of requests for information. Our analysis also found that requesters have to complain to the ICO over basic errors made by government departments.