Reporter's Nazi challenge is upheld by information chief

By Dominic Ponsford

A challenge over the way the Home Office dealt with a request from
The People for details of Nazi war criminals living in the UK has been
upheld by the Information Commissioner.

And the department, which is one of the worst in central government
for complying with FoI requests, has promised to smarten up its act
following the successful appeal.

People reporter David Brown
(right)n emailed his FoI request to the Home Office on 19 January,
asking how many Nazi war criminals are living in the UK.

Brown
thought the answer could make a good story to tie in with the 60th
anniversaries of both the liberation of Auschwitz and VE day.

Government departments are required under the Act to provide a response within 20 days.

But
Brown heard nothing until 4 March, when he was informed that the
information would cost more than £600 to retrieve and the Home Office
had a policy of not complying with requests that exceeded this limit
unless there were exceptional circumstances.

Three months later
the very information he had asked for was released separately in a
Parliamentary written answer by Home Office minister Andy Burnham, who
revealed that several hundred Nazi war criminals could still be living
in Britain.

Brown decided to appeal the matter to the Information
Commissioner’s Office, and this week the ICO ruled that the Home Office
should have replied to him within 20 days.

Brown said he has been
told by the Home Office that “procedures are now being enhanced across
the organisation to ensure that statutory guidelines are met”.

He
added: “I am glad the Home Office is currently changing its procedures
for dealing with the implementation of the FoI Act because its approach
to my request was slapdash to put it mildly.

“Officials initially
indicated they could help, then dragged their heels and finally told me
two months later they could not comply because it would take them too
long to dig out the relevant information. The whole thing was an
inconvenience to them and they just wanted it to go away. The attitude
was completely wrong.

“I find it staggering that information
about suspected Nazi war criminals living in Britain was so difficult
for the Home Office to find and reveal.

“What was even more
galling was that the relevant details finally came out in a
Parliamentary answer and those dealing with my request did not even
have the courtesy to let me know this would be happening.

“In the
light of my experience, I would recommend to journalists that if they
are having problems with Government departments then they will probably
have more luck accessing what they want by asking an MP to table a
question in the House than waiting for civil servants to respond under
the FoI Act.”

A league table revealed last month that the Home
Office was one of the worst performing Government departments on
responding to FoI requests. It revealed that just 28 per cent of the
619 “resolvable” FoI requests it received in the first three months of
this year were granted in full.

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