FOI used as delaying tactic

A disturbing trend has emerged whereby government officials are using the Freedom of Information Act’s 20-working day time limit to delay answering questions. For example, MPs’ written questions are expected to be answered within seven days of the question being tabled. But some ministers, including the Prime Minister below, are citing the FOIA and extending the time period to four weeks (20 working days).

Written Answers – Prime Minister: Correspondence (5 Jul 2005)

Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield, Con) Hansard source
To ask the Prime Minister when he will reply to the letters from the hon. Member for Beaconsfield of (a) 14 June and (b) 15 June.

Tony Blair (Prime Minister, HM Treasury) Hansard source
The request for information set out in the hon. Member’s letter of 14 June is being handled under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. A reply will be issued within the statutory 20 working-day limit set out in the Act.

MPs are not the only ones suffering from this misuse of the FOIA. Instead of getting questions answered within one or two days from the press office or enquiries desk, the media and public are being asked to submit their request by email and when they do so, they are told, ‘your request is now being considered under the FOIA and we will respond in the 20-day time period.’

This practice is becoming worryingly common in some government press rooms, according to the Observer’s Home Affairs editor, Martin Bright. During the FOI Live conference in London last month, Friends of the Earth solicitor Phil Michaels recounted similar examples of government departments refusing to answer questions in a timely way by citing the FOI’s time limit.

The Freedom of Information Act is designed to get official information into the public realm in a quick and easy manner. The spirit of the law is being violated when it is used in this way as a means of hindering public accountability.

If any readers have experienced this type of misuse of the FOIA please send me an email detailing the offending organisation and the case. I will compile these into a report and submit this to the Information Commissioner.

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