Information Commissioner Richard Thomas held out little hope of a major reduction in the huge backlog of Freedom of Information reqest appeals when he gave evidence to the House of Commons Justice Committee last night.
When FoI requests are rejected by public authorities, journalists and members of the public can appeal to the Information Commissioner. Journalists in particular have complained that public authorities are using the long delays in dealing with appeals as a way of kicking difficult requests into the long grass.
Some appeals over rejected FoI requests have taken years to deal with.
At his last Commons grilling before stepping down, Thomas said there was little prospect of his body’s funding for dealing with FoI increasing from the current annual figure of £5.5m when that runs out in March.
He said that although the commission was now settling more cases than it receives each year, it was still feeling the effects of a huge backlog in FoI cases which built up in the first year of the act, four years ago.
He said the Commission “could not expect to get more than £5.5m” in funding from the Ministry of Justice in its next financial year.
He said: “We close 50 per cent of cases within 30 days.” But he added: “The majority of cases which have to be investigated more fully are waiting six months to start the investigation process. That’s not acceptable.”
He added: “Freedom of information is done on quite a shoestring.” He pointed out that whereas his body has 53 FoI caseworkers on the payroll dealing will the whole span of FoI appeals, the Ministry of Justice has a staff of 28 working just on its own FoI requests.
Thomas said that 400,000 FoI requests had been made in the first four years of the Act. Of those, 9,000 appeals have been referred to his office where requestors have taken issue with a public authority for turning down a request.
Thomas added that a report is expected soon on the review of the 30-year-rule governing the release of secret government documents – which was announced in October 2007 and is being led by Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre.
The Ministry of Justice announced yesterday that it has selected Advertising Standards Authority director general Christopher Graham to replace Thomas as Information Commissioner.