Freedom of Information: Under-resourced watchdog swamped by complaints

Refusals by government departments to disclose sensitive information have generated a backlog of complaints. Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, looks at the consequences
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Britain's new right-to-know laws are being threatened by a backlog of more than 1,000 complaints brought by dissatisfied members of the public, some of which are taking almost two years to clear. Many concern government departments which have refused to disclose documents about ministers' meetings or sensitive and embarrassing correspondence within Whitehall.

The Information Commissioner, who has the power to order ministers and public bodies to disclose this information, has now written to members of the public apologising that their complaints have not been allocated a case officer. In letters received last month, the Commissioner describes the backlog which has been built up since the Freedom of Information Act went live in January 2005 as "substantial". Of the 5,000 complaints received by the watchdog, 1,371 have yet to be resolved and include 613 still awaiting allocation to a case officer.

Latest figures reveal that 19 of the most difficult and controversial cases relate to requests for sensitive information from the government made more than two years ago. A further 49 are over a year old. Last year, the total caseload of unresolved complaints stood at 1,245.

Campaigners are concerned that by the time these complaints are settled, the information requested will be out of date or of little interest to the person who originally requested it. "In some cases the information will be too late to be useful, which is potentially quite serious for the legislation, because it may be putting people off using the Act," says Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

Some believe that ministers have now realised that it is an effective strategy in thwarting attempts to expose politically embarrassing material about the Government. "The Information Commissioner simply does not have the resources to handle the growing number of complaints, so that this backlog has developed. It's a shame, because the decisions being made are mostly very positive and are leading to more disclosure."

Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, has pleaded with ministers to release more funds to help combat the backlog, but has been told he will have to wait. Last year, a grant of £850,000 from the former Department for Constitutional Affairs helped reduce the problem.

MPs say that by deliberately starving the Information Commissioner of funds the Government is helping to take the sting out of troublesome requests that it might have to comply with when the Information Commissioner finally rules on them. The chronic lack of funds has forced Mr Thomas to prioritise his existing resources so that more straightforward cases are settled as quickly as possible while the more awkward requests, usually relating to government departments, are put in the difficult pile where they wait longer to be resolved.

The letter sent to members of the public still waiting for a case officer to be allocated to their complaint told them that complaints had been sent to the Commissioner's Northern Ireland office where there is "extra capacity for dealing with investigations".

Ministers are still considering whether to press ahead with plans to restrict access to information under the new law by bringing in measures that will allow public bodies to refuse more requests on financial and other grounds.

A spokesperson for the Information Commissioner's Office conceded that some cases were still taking longer to resolve than they would like, adding: "We recognise that our greatest challenge continues to be the high number of complex cases that we receive".

The spokesperson said: "Over the past year we have made a number of internal changes to speed up and improve the quality of our service, which has led to marked improvements in the number of cases being closed. The Freedom of Information Act has proved to be a significant success and as a result we have received a higher than anticipated number of complaints."