Leading article: Information must be free – and speedy

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The Independent Online

The campaign for Freedom of Information has uncovered a number that beggars belief. A case presented to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) took three years and more than 10 months to resolve. Students complete degree courses more rapidly. Full combat operations in Iraq were concluded in less time.

Worse, this was no rare delay. When it comes to the revelation of facts under the Freedom of Information Act, the pace is sluggish in the extreme. Of the nearly 500 formal decision notices issued by the ICO for the most complex cases, it took an average of 19.7 months for a decision to be made.

This is a scandal – but not one for which the commissioner is responsible. Last year, the ICO received 17 per cent more appeals than expected from individuals eager to find out what the Government refuses to reveal. Last month they received 393 complaints and settled only 322, using mediation between applicant and information holder, or with reference to precedent. The service is plainly popular. And, just as plainly, the office cannot operate efficiently with its £5.5m budget.

The delay in the release of information that arises from the slow decisions of the Commissioner's office clearly benefits those in government who want information kept from the people. And there is evidence that ministers are happy for requests for information to languish. Though complaints to the commissioner's office have been rising, the ICO budget was actually cut in 2007.

Recently Gordon Brown has committed to widen the remit of the Freedom of Information Act. But given how dysfunctionally the present system is working, this rings hollow. The Prime Minister cannot get away with speaking, as he did last month, about extending information laws, about the importance of transparency, and of "new protections for liberty", if he does not also commit to providing the resources to deliver this.

If Mr Brown truly believes that open government is good government, he should recognise that when the process by which information is revealed slows, government gets worse.