The existing backlog of Freedom of Information appeals to the Information Commissioner’s Office is now so long it will take until March 2010 to clear.
This was one of the details revealed to Press Gazette in a freedom of information release which reveals the extent to which the Information Commissioner’s office is falling behind.
Journalists have complained that the huge time lag in dealing with FoI appeals means that public authorities can effectively kick embarrassing requests into the long grass, by refusing them safe in the knowledge that the Commissioner won’t compel them to act for at least a year to 18 months.
More than one in three complaints to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) takes more than six months to process. More than one in five is still waiting adjudication after a year, and many journalists are still waiting for Freedom of Information Act requests to be answered three years since the introduction of the Act.
According to figures obtained by Press Gazette under the Act, the office’s caseload – the number of complaints assigned a case officer but waiting to be answered – has increased from 1261 in April 2006 to 1346 in December 2007.
The number of resolved complaints rose from an average of 138.8 a month inApril to December 2006 to 173.75 in 2007, though the number of new complaints received also went up from 144.3 to 162.4 a month.
In April 2007 the backlog was reduced by 49 – the ICO’s most effective month since it began keeping records. If it repeats this performance every month the current backlog would clear in March 2010.
The ICO deals with appeals and complaints under the FoI Act from people unhappy with their response from the public body they applied to, often after the request has been through an internal review. The office has 45 staff working on FoI complaints.
Matt Davis, a freelance journalist specialising in FoI, said: ‘The effect of the Commissioner taking so long to reach decisions in cases is that the public authorities treat the Information Commissioner with contempt.
‘We have cases that have been in for more than a year and there doesn’t seem to be any realistic prospect of a decision in the near future.
‘At the start of FoI I thought once a few decisions had been made by the Commissioner there would be fewer delays as people saw where the land lies. It seems the opposite has happened – the more decisions go up, the more delays there are.
‘I don’t think the Olympic Delivery Authority is as open as it should be, bearing in mind they are a public authority spending £9bn of our money on the games. I’ve got two FoI questions on appeal against the ODA and another two pending.
‘At this rate it could be 2012 and the games would have already started before we get a response.
‘Public authorities are realising the impact of a release will be completely diluted if it comes out 18 months later.”
According to the Campaign for Freedom of Information, the average request taken to appeal with the Information Commissioner is taking up to a year and half.
A spokeswoman for the Commissioner’s office said: ‘Over the past year we 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. We have also acknowledged that some cases are still taking longer to resolve than we would like and we recognise that our greatest challenge continues to be the high number of complex cases that we receive.
‘However, more than 50 per cent of all the cases we have closed over the past year were dealt with in fewer than 30 days and we continue to work to improve our complaint-handling procedures.
‘Additional funding we received from the Ministry of Justice was put to good use and enabled us to reduce the backlog of complaints.
‘Our current funding levels for this work, coupled with the fact that the number of cases received continues to exceed forecasts, will restrict our ability to make further improvements.
‘We are in ongoing discussions with the Ministry of Justice to discuss the current level of funding.”