Freedom of Information news, Issue 13
1. ICO criticised for backlog and weak enforcement
The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has been giving evidence to the Constitutional Affairs Committee on the first year of the FOI Act. When criticised for the slow processing of appeals, he explained that the current backlog of cases (700) is a result of the volume of appeals being 14-20% higher than anticipated, and the complexity of some cases. The OIC has also had to move staff from guidance tasks to complaint handling, as there was not enough staff resource.
Apart from staffing problems, Thomas explained that some of the complaints were badly presented, and there had also been the problem of a huge influx of cases when the Act first came to force. The Commissioner was also criticised for not having used his enforcement powers effectively, and not publishing any practice recommendations so far.
Thomas indicated that, in the future, he will not be so willing to allow time extensions to public authorities considering the public interest argument – two months should be long enough. So far, public authorities have often been allowed extensions.
The full transcript of the Commissioner’s oral evidence is available at www.publications.parliament.uk. Richard Thomas, Information Commissioner, and Graham Smith, Deputy Information Commissioner gave their evidence on March 14. Another session was scheduled for March 28.
2. ICO upholds case on vexatious requests
The ICO’s recent decision notice upholds the Birmingham City Council on the matter of vexatious FOI requests. The council had received 49 requests from the same individual over four months. While the authority replied to the first 22 requests, it refused to answer the rest (apart from two) on the grounds that they were vexatious. It believed that the number and the nature of the requests were intended to cause considerable inconvenience and cost to the public authority.
The Commissioner considered that even if it may not have been the applicant’s explicit intention to cause inconvenience or expense, dealing with the requests would require substantial resources from the public authority. Even if the requests were not substantially similar or strictly identical, the end result was to harass the public authority. The Commissioner thus decided that the authority was correct to treat the complainant as vexatious.
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50078594 of March 8 2006 is available at www.ico.org.uk.
3. ICO and Tribunal decisions explained
The Campaign for Freedom of Information is organising a half-day course on FOI in London on May 16 2006. This course will examine the UK and Scottish Information Commissioner’s decisions to date, as well as those of the Information Tribunal. Speakers will discuss the implications of these decisions for request handling, exemptions and the public interest test. The course is aimed at public authorities, lawyers and FOI specialists.
4. Scottish Information Commissioner expects improvements in response times
The Scottish Information Commissioner received 571 appeals in 2005, two times more than had been estimated. His annual report for 2005 reveals that while most FOI requests are made by individuals, 20% of requests come from the legal profession.
The Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, expressed concern over the fact that some public authorities do not provide responses in time: “I appreciate that Scottish public authorities had only a short period in which to prepare their organisations for the Act coming into force, but the duty to respond within 20 working days is not particularly onerous in most cases. I hope to see a radical improvement in this area in 2006.”
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Copyright Privacy Laws & Business 2006