Freedom Of Information: A third of all Freedom of Information requests rejected

New figures reveal that the chances of getting an answer under the new right-to-know law depend on which government department deals with the request, reports Robert Verkaik, Law Editor
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The Independent Online

It was Gordon Brown who said in his speech on liberty last October that "Freedom of Information can be inconvenient, at times frustrating and indeed embarrassing for governments. But Freedom of Information is the right course because government belongs to the people, not the politicians."

After a year of uncertainty over planned curbs to our new right-to-know law, the Prime Minister's decision to commit himself to open government was welcomed.

But of course, Mr Brown was on solid ground when he paid lip service to a law which could potentially cause such havoc in his new administration. Of the flood of requests made since 1 January 2005, many may have been inconvenient for politicians but very rarely have they led to the disclosure of anything embarrassing.

This week the Ministry of Justice published its annual report on the workings of the Act for last year. It showed that central government received 16,903 requests and that a similar number were dealt with by public bodies.

Of greater significance was the figures for the success rates of requests made to government. These showed that across all departments last year, a third of requests were rejected in part or in full. The department with the worst record was the office of the Attorney General, where only 23 per cent of demands for information were met in full, while the best performer was the Department of Work and Pensions which answered nearly 90 per cent.

Controversy over the war in Iraq and related issues meant that it was understandable that the Ministry of Defence was the department which received the most number of requests for information – 3,026. But surprisingly this department also had a good record in replying to members of the public, of whom 73 per cent had their requests granted in full. The Ministry of Justice, the department with responsibility for the legislation, completed just 48 per cent. This high degree of variance in the success rates across government needs further investigation.

As does the situation regarding so called "unresolvable" inquiries under the Act, of which the report shows that there were 5,700. Of these, 3,332 were considered "unresolvable" because the department did not hold the information, while another 2,452 were rejected because the government department required more information to meet the request. If the number of "unresolvable" requests, some of which are classified on the exercise of an official's discretion, are added to those that have been resolved then the total figure for successful requests is much lower.

What this annual report does not tell us is what the satisfaction rate was among those members of the public who were told their request was unresolvable or even for those whose requests are said to have been granted in full.

The bitter experience for many who use the legislation is that the process rarely ends in complete satisfaction. This is partly because of the time taken to respond to requests. This week's report revealed that 16 per cent – more than 5,000 requests – were taking more than the stipulated 20 days to process that is required by the Act. And of the 620 requests which went to internal review within the departments, 19 per cent took more than 60 days to process.