Results of an internal investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office have revealed that several government departments are failing on their legal transparency obligations, with one freedom of information request to the Home Office delayed by 1,241 days – more than three years.

The investigation, details of which have been obtained by Scrapbook, was triggered as a result of high levels of complaints to the ICO about failures to answer FOI requests within the required timeframe. The shocking findings showed:

  • The MoD failed to answer 35% of requests within the time limit, and had outstanding requests almost two years overdue.
  • The Scotland Office had requests more than 200 days over the time limit.
  • The Metropolitan Police had outstanding obligations up to 205 days overdue.

These failings are at odds with the coalition’s repeated pledge to be the most transparent government ever. Writing in the Guardian last November, Francis Maude claimed:

“The UK government is now the world’s most open administration, but our ambition stretches far further. We are starting to transform the access British people have to the information that matters to them. It may lead to difficult questions – but more importantly it will lead to better decisions and better government.”

Maude should start this mission with his own staff. At the time the Cabinet Office minister put pen to paper, his own department was also under investigation as one of the worst offenders, failing to answer almost a quarter of requests within the required twenty days.

When it comes to transparency, perhaps Maude can learn something from his Cabinet Office colleague’s bin-related antics in St James’ Park.

  1. There is absolutely no excuse for this. But there is a situation that is even more brazen and not really on anybody’s radar.

    I became banned from making FoI requests in October 2009 – as an ex-employee. This was in the form of a gagging clause written into a compromise agreement. It lasted for 20 months, and the authority concerned, Cheshire West and Chester Council only backed down and returned my statutory querying rights when I got Hugh Tomlinson QC involved.

    They’ve told me they are prepared to do it again, as and when they see fit – which doesn’t seem to match other public utterances, which speak of ‘openness’, ‘transparency’, ‘a commitment to the free flow of information’ etc.

    The BIG problem here is that this behaviour could mushroom: there is a loophole there to exploit for ANY public body, including central government. The ICO will only pursue the data controller if the banned ex-employee makes a request and the ban is used as justification. But the ex-employee won’t make a request because they’ll be pursued through the courts by the employer for return of any settlement money if they do.

    So, unscrupulous public bodies with a lot to hide, can avoid hanging out their dirty washing using a dedicated FoI / DP gagging clause within a compromise agreement. Brent Borough Council have also done it.

    And the Information Commissioner’s hands are tied.

  2. Not an acceptable situation.

    FOI request: Why is the government so crap at doing what it pledged to do.

    Like unacceptable Paul Cardin. It would of course be possible, surely, to get someone else to ask the question for you. That doesn’t deal with the principle of the matter, but it does mean you could have the information you need or want.

  3. @Tris… I was forced to do that in the end. Here’s the link, where a friend made the request:

    Taking this to the extreme, all employees facing compromise agreements could be coerced into signing agreements featuring such a clause. A multitude of sins could be hidden rather cheaply, at £250+ per agreement per council.

    It’s one of those vested interests where all the parties gain: employers; solicitors; unions, and with the recent ‘improvements’ to Employment Law, they will multiply and there’s no end in sight.

    The injustice at the heart of this is that innocent whistleblowers such as myself are given a choice: sign and lose your job or don’t sign and lose your job. It’s like walking the plank. But how on earth can a situation like that arise in the first place?

    I, and I would imagine the overwhelming majority of whistleblowers behave honestly and with integrity – many officials, often in very powerful positions, don’t – and are fully-prepared to break their own internal procedures and squander public money in the pursuit of the end-game – reputation management, and an effective cover-up.

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