New information chief pledges action on FoI backlog

The new Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, has pledged to make reducing the substantial backlog of Freedom of Information appeals a priority when he takes up the job this summer.

Graham, who has been selected by the Ministry of Justice to replace Richard Thomas at the end of June, was grilled by MPs on the justice select committee in a pre-appointment hearing this week.

Although the Information Commissioner’s Office now settles more cases than it receives each year, it is still feeling the effects of a huge backlog which built up in the first year of the Act, four years ago.

The body receives £5.5m a year in funding from the Ministry of Justice, and employs 53 case-workers to deal with FoI complaints.

Justice committee chairman Sir Alan Beith, the Libreal Democrat MP for Berwick Upon Tweed, asked Graham whether the MoJ had promised him any extra resources to clear the backlog.

“It is very challenging,” Graham replied. “I have not had any discussions with the Ministry of Justice about resources. I have not had many discussions beyond the job application. I think the fun now starts.”

He added: “The freedom of information side looks to be pretty tightly resourced. It is a backlog that has been there pretty much from day one.

“It will be interesting to see how we can deal with that increase and clear up the backlog unless there are significant resources made available, but I would also say that this is a problem that is not unfamiliar to me.”

Graham, a former BBC journalist who has led the Advertising Standards Authority since 2000, said one of his first priorities when he joined the ad watchdog had been to ensure complaints were handled more quickly.

“I am not pretending I have got a magic bullet,” he told MPs. “I would merely say that I regard it as a priority, it is very important, to make progress on that backlog.

“A deterrent only works if people fear it. People have to have a reasonable expectation that there is going to be a result pretty quickly.”

When FoI requests are rejected by public authorities, journalists and members of the public can appeal to the Information Commissioner.

Of the 400,000 FoI requests that have been made in the first four years of the Act, 9,000 appeals have been referred to the ICO.

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, Richard Thomas said: “We close 50 per cent of cases within 30 days. The majority of cases which have to be investigated more fully are waiting six months to start the investigation process. That’s not acceptable.”

Thomas added that there was little prospect of his body’s funding for dealing with FoI increasing from the current annual figure of £5.5m.

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