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ICO highlights FoI failings at five public authorities

Freedom of Information document
Image source: Petrov 96

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has taken action against five public authorities for continued failings to meet their obligations under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act.

Sussex Police and South Yorkshire Police have been issued with enforcement notices for their FoI failings, with the latter’s FOI request response rate being classed as “unacceptable on any level”.

The Department of Education (DfE), Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) have been given practice recommendations setting out improvements they can make to better comply with their legal obligations.

The measures come as the information commissioner, John Edwards, has written an open letter to public organisations to remind them that transparency is essential and resources must be dedicated to access to information.

It says that all staff have to take FoI seriously and provides a series of steps for improving an organisation’s performance in compliance.

Police backlogs

The two police forces have been sanctioned for large backlogs in FoI requests: 753 for Sussex (including 389 over six months old) and 390 for South Yorkshire. The former had a compliance rate of just 32% for the most recent quarter, while the latter’s was under 18% for most of last year, which the enforcement notice describes as “unacceptable on any level.”

The enforcement notices order the forces to clear their backlogs by 31 August of this year at the latest.

According the ICO, the FOS has been inconsistent in its request response times, with 65% within the statutory timeframe in 2022-23 and the figure falling to just 23% in November 2023.

The DfE’s compliance rate for responding within the statutory timeframes has been declining since 2019 and has not consistently been over 80% since then; while the FCDO has had a consistently poor level of performance in terms of the time limit for complying with information requests. For the quarter July to September 2023 just 33% of requests were answered within the deadline, with 55% answered within the deadline or within the permitted extension.

The FOS, FCDO and DfE have until 31 May 2024 to confirm they have complied with their practice recommendations and how this has been achieved. Failure to comply could result in an enforcement notice.

The ICO has now issued nine enforcement notices in the last 12 months.

Fundamental to democracy

Its director of FoI and transparency, Warren Seddon, said: "Transparency is fundamental to our democracy. Information delayed is information denied, and people have the legal right to promptly receive information they're entitled to.

“Sussex Police and South Yorkshire Police have let people down with their woeful failure to comply with the law on responding to information requests.

“The commissioner has been clear that public sector leaders should take transparency seriously. Where organisations fail to do this we will take enforcement action so people’s information rights are upheld.”

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