It was quite a long process getting this database. Originally, in response to my 1 June 2005 FOIA request for ‘all complaints’ I was given a database containing just 375 entries. I knew from attending conferences that the Information Commissioner’s Office was already up to 1,000 complaints when I made my request, so I telephoned and discovered they had misinterpreted in an overly restrictive way. They agreed to send me the outstanding information in electronic form.
I admit I could have got the data up here a bit sooner, but why is it up to me to do this? The Commissioner’s Office should:
a) have this data online at all times and accessibly to the public.
b) if they didn’t have it before they at least had the data they gave me – why didn’t they publish it on their own website?
Many of the cases on the database are from February and March 2005. Anything from this time period is definitely overdue and it’s worth pointing out that the Scottish Information Commissioner has a policy of closing all investigations within four months.
It’s particularly noticeable that most of these decisions are being made not against the big government departments, but against small authorities. Where decisions have been made, evidence is mounting that far from ushering in a new era of openness, the Commissioner is protecting the secrecy status quo.
Delay is not the only sign the Information Commissioner is letting down the public. The Commissioner is failing to make decisions. Only two orders for disclosure have been made so far and both were against local councils, not central government. One, Bridgnorth District Council in Shropshire, was ordered to release council files in a land dispute. The other, Corby Borough Council, was told to give a complainant details of how much was paid to a temporarily employed finance officer.
In all other cases, ranging from a list of the revenue generated by speed cameras to information about how council tax bands are calculated, the Information Commissioner has sided with the public authority, or simply declared that a refusal notice had not been properly issued.
Strictly speaking, complaints against 23 authorities have been upheld, but the majority of these are cases in which the commissioner has ruled that the refusal to release information was not issued according to the letter of the law or the council has misinterpreted the request being made of it.
Some decisions have highlighted the impotence of the Commissioner. One district council, for example, ignored a citizen who asked for information and then went on to ignore the Commissioner, too, when he tried to investigate the case. Westminster City Council incorrectly told a citizen that the FOI Act did not cover the maintenance of pavements by the council.
The Commissioner did not order this information released, but instead could only order that the council consider the request under the new law and if they refuse the request, to do so in the proper legal format.
Where a complainant’s account differs with that of a public authority, the Commissioner seems to give the benefit of the doubt to the public authority. For instance, he accepted that the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority “complied with the Act in posting a response to the complainant within 20 days, even though the complainant stated such a letter was never received”.
A decision against the Cabinet Office after it failed to respond within the 20 working days was upheld, but “as the Cabinet Office subsequently did respond, the Decision Notice did not identify any steps to be taken”. In other words, nothing was done about what was a purely technical breach of the act’s wording.
It is not clear if the Cabinet Office’s “response” was to grant the request (for information about emails sent by and to Andrew Adonis, now Lord Adonis), or as seems more likely, to refuse it.