UK government department reprimanded over handling of freedom of information
Information commissioner warns other public authorities to 'take note' after issuing first enforcement notice in seven years
The Department for International Trade has been hit with an enforcement notice – the first to be issued in seven years – over its “persistent failures” in handling freedom of information requests.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which today issued the notice, also warned that it will make full use of its powers. John Edwards, who leads the watchdog, stated the move “clearly marks the start of our new approach to regulating the Act".
The notice orders the Department for International Trade (DIT) to respond to requests older than 20 working days – the statutory time limit. Failure to comply within 35 calendar days of the notice could lead to the DIT being found in contempt of court.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), has also been warned it may face similar action if it does not improve its handling of freedom of information (FOI) requests.
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“This announcement is a welcome sign that the ICO is beginning to take enforcement seriously,” Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, told openDemocracy.
“Authorities can no longer systematically ignore FOI requests without repercussions. The only previous consequence, after months of delay, was eventually being compelled to do what they should have done at the outset – just reply to the request. That’s no penalty at all.”
According to the information rights watchdog, the DIT issued late responses in over 50% of requests it received between January and March 2022.
“The department had the worst response figures for the whole of central government. Its response times also declined in 2021, despite there being no significant increase in requests or known resource issues at the department,” according to the ICO’s statement.
“This is a very welcome decision by the new information commissioner,” freedom of information expert Martin Rosenbaum told openDemocracy.
“It is the kind of firm and determined action which has been badly needed to tackle serious failings on FOI in government departments. It should make it clear to the public authorities with the worst records on FOI compliance that there are limits to what they can get away with.”
Earlier this year, openDemocracy organised an open letter to Edwards, calling for the ICO to do more to hold ministers and departments accountable and to defend the public’s right to know. The letter was signed by more than 110 MPs, journalists and campaigners.
In response, Edwards said he recognised “the concern around timely access to information” and insisted that addressing this was a “priority”.
The letter was coordinated in response to Whitehall’s abuse of the FOI Act after a string of revelations by openDemocracy, including the exposé of the Clearing House, an ‘Orwellian’ government unit that has been accused of blocking the release of information.
Last month, the government announced its intention to radically overhaul the Clearing House system.
openDemocracy has experienced severe delays when trying to access information from DIT.
It recently complained to the ICO over a request for information about a meeting between a DIT minister and a company. The request was submitted in early June, but the department kept extending the 20-working day deadline - a legal loophole - and has yet to provide a substantive response.
In another request, openDemocracy asked for a tranche of Liz Truss’ ministerial diaries during her time as secretary of state for international trade. The request, filed in early December 2021, was not responded to until March.
The information rights watchdog has also ordered the department to put together a plan to introduce measures to “mitigate any future delays”.
The ICO has also criticised BEIS for “consistently” failing to “respond to a significant number of the information access requests”. The watchdog issued a practice recommendation against the government department. If BEIS does not improve, an enforcement notice could be issued against it.
openDemocracy has had great difficulty in accessing information from BEIS.
In July, openDemocracy asked for information about meetings and correspondence between the then secretary of state Kwasi Kwarteng and oil company Shell, but the department used a legal loophole to extend the 20-working day deadline. It is now not expected to respond until at least mid September.
In May, openDemocracy requested information about meetings and correspondence between Kwarteng and the fracking industry. But BEIS stonewalled openDemocracy - providing no response after 40 working days. It has also failed to respond, as yet, to an internal review request on the same subject made in July.
A DIT Spokesperson said: “We are fully committed to our transparency obligations and responded to over 500 FOI requests received last year. We continue to evaluate and improve our internal processes and will respond to the ICO in due course.”
A BEIS spokesperson told the BBC: “We are committed to handling requests in a timely way while managing this alongside tackling the energy crisis and driving economic growth, and we are engaging with the ICO's office on the next steps.”
Why should you care about freedom of information?
From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?
Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.
Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy
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