Freedom of information office 'secretive'

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The Independent Online

A secretive Whitehall department set up by the Government to handle sensitive and difficult requests under the new Freedom of Information Act is itself in breach of the new legislation, a parliamentary committee says.

The so-called "clearing house" brought in by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, shortly before the new laws took force in January 2004 has refused to release information about its activities.

Today, MPs on the Constitutional Affairs Committee, which has been reviewing the first year of the FoI Act, told the Government that it must comply with the "letter and sprit" of the law.

The clearing house was asked by an academic interested in the workings of the legislation to release information about the number of cases it had dealt with. But he was told that such information was exempt under the Act because it could "prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs".

The MPs said: "This is an unacceptable position for the government department in charge of promoting FoI compliance. The clearing house must comply fully with the letter and the spirit of the FoI Act, be openly accountable for its work and respond to any individual requests for information which it receives in full accordance with the Act."

Government plans to introduce more fees for using the legislation were also criticised in the report. "We see no need to change the fees regulations. There appears to be a lack of clarity and some under-use of existing provisions," said the MPs.

The report also found that Britain's new freedom of information laws were being undermined by a culture of delay, with some public requests for information being postponed indefinitely. The committee says it regarded this as contrary to the spirit of the Act but welcomed a commitment from the information commissioner to adopt a firmer approach to enforcement, and put pressure on public authorities to deal with requests more quickly.

A further finding was that the complaints resolution provided by the information commissioner's office (ICO) was unsatisfactory, with many requesters and public authorities having to wait months for the commissioner to begin investigating their complaints. The quality of some investigations was also inadequate.

"The committee is surprised it took so long for the backlog of complaints to be addressed and is not convinced that enough resources have yet been allocated to clear this problem. The commissioner is expected to publish a progress report in September of this year which the committee will use to assess the success of the ICO's recovery action plan," said the MPs. They also had reservations about the relationship between DCA and the ICO and questioned whether it was working effectively. The committee recommended that the Government consider making the information commissioner directly accountable to, and funded by, Parliament.

Alan Beith MP, chairman of the committee, said: "Freedom of information is clearly working, although there is room for improvement. We welcome the way that information is being released and used, but our FoI legislation can only be as good as the quality of the records management it gives us access to, and only if people can get access to the information in a timely way. Long delays in accessing information or having complaints resolved go against the spirit and letter of the Act, and must be resolved."