Government 'getting worse on FoI answers'

Major government departments are becoming worse at answering requests under the Freedom of Information Act, according to new research.

The worst-performing department was the Cabinet Office, which refused 51 per cent of FoI requests in the three months to the end of September last year, according to legal information provider Sweet and Maxwell.

Overall, government departments refused to answer 22 per cent of FoI requests in the third quarter of last year, compared with refusals in only 18 per cent throughout 2005, when the act first came into force.

The figures show that 6,334 requests for information went in the 12 months to the end of September 2009.

The research showed that government departments are also getting worse at answering requests within the 20-day deadline set by the act, with the proportion getting responses after that time rising from 16 per cent to 18 per cent in the same period.

The Cabinet Office topped the list of poor performers by rejecting more than half the FoI requests it received, followed by H M Revenue and Customs and the Office of Fair Trading, both of which rejected 45 per cent of requests, the Ministry of Justice, which rejected 44 per cent, and H M Treasury, which rejected 32 per cent.

At the other end of the scale, H M Land Registry rejected only three per cent of requests, the Scotland Office only four per cent, the Treasury Solicitor’s Department six per cent, the Ministry of defence eight per cent and the Department of Health nine per cent.

Solicitor Marcus Turle, a partner at law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse and author of a book, Freedom of Information Manual, said: “Public sector bodies are increasingly refusing to disclose information or dragging their feet over dealing with requests as a way of managing their reputations.

“There is a feeling within some public sector bodies that information on their poor performance which is disclosed is too often used as a stick to beat them with, which is reinforcing this reluctance.

“The culture within the public sector has always been that information should be disclosed on a ‘need to know’ basis which is at odds with the ‘right to know’ principle enshrined in the act.

‘Public sector bodies still too often think ‘why does this person want this information?’ when dealing with requests.

“What’s worrying is that public sector bodies are actually getting worse at dealing with requests when you would expect them to be improving their performance.

‘The act has been in force five years now. Rather than becoming faster and more open in dealing with requests, the trend is going in the opposite direction.”

He went on: “If the Ministry of Defence, which has a reputation for secrecy and could justifiably withhold information on national security grounds, only refuses eight per cent of requests you have to wonder whether departments like H M Revenue & Customs are withholding information on legitimate grounds.”

One reason for the increasing number of problems faced by FoI requests could be that there are no penalties for public sector bodies which withheld information unjustifiably or failed to disclose information within the 20-day deadline.

“There is very little disincentive for public sector bodies not to comply with the spirit of the Act,” Turle said.

“They cannot be fined for withholding or taking too much time to disclose information just because it might be embarrassing to them. Too many perfectly valid requests are taking years to process and all too frequently by the time the information is obtained it is out of date.”

The FoI request about MPs’ expenses was first submitted in January 2005 and it took more than four years before the information was disclosed, he said, adding: “One of the most frequently cited reasons for refusing information is that it contains personal details. This is a bit of a catch-all excuse – it was one of the main reasons given for withholding information on MPs’ expenses.”

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for the Freedom of Information Act, said Government departments were now dealing with more requests for information than ever before.

“There has been an increase in the number of requests for information right across government,” she said.

“More requests than ever are being answered on time and a greater volume of information is being released.”

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