Society of Editors Conference

I attended the Society of Editors Conference October 16-18 in the Lake District and took part in a session entitled Freedom of Information – is it working?. Joining me on the panel were Graham Smith, Deputy Information Commissioner; Maurice Frankel, Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information and Keith Mathieson, solicitor at the law firm Reynolds Porter Chamberlain.

Graham Smith told the audience his office is receiving 50 complaints a week with a total of 2,000 received so far. He rightly predicted criticism about the delay, lack of decisions and dearth of data coming out of the Commissioner’s Office. Instead of taking responsibility for these failures, Smith trotted out the usual excuses, ‘we’re on a learning curve’, ‘we’ve never had to do this before’, and best of all ‘ the public are giving us muddled documents.’

The fact is the Freedom of Information Act was passed more than five years ago after almost all other industrialised countries. This is not a new law, it is not a progressive law and five years is more than enough time to prepare for it. When the USA introduced sweeping changes to its FOI law after Watergate in 1974, agencies had just three months to change. The UK government commissioned numerous (and expensive) studies on FOI in the years leading up to 1 January 2005, which predicted exactly the types and number of cases that would be appealed to the Commissioner.

It is cheap and cowardly to blame the public for these delays. A more likely culprit is foot-dragging from public authorities, particularly central government. But where is the criticism of say, the Cabinet Office? Oh no – the Commissioner isn’t going to pick on the big guys, just the little ‘woman in the street’.

After nine months, there is simply no excuse for a 1,500 case backlog and just three decisions actually ordering disclosure. At the conference, many editors talked of their frustration that the Commissioner wasn’t even posting a list of the cases he is investigating. I told the conference that I had to make an FOIA request just to get this information in August. When I asked the ICO to make this data available they said it was ‘not in the public interest’. All the editors had a good laugh about this, prompting Smith to promise that ‘we’ll look into doing that’.

Another complaint was about the time taken to rule on cases. I have repeatedly asked the ICO for a commitment on the time taken to get through cases. They have always refused to set a time limit, but when pressed to do so at the conference, Smith said the Office was working to a minimum target of resolving 50 percent of cases within 12 working weeks. But until the caseload database is published, there is no way of knowing if this most basic target is being met.

Leadership is about taking responsibility and this is precisely what the ICO is not doing. In my own cases, there was no muddling of paperwork and yet a complaint filed at the beginning of April was only just handed to an investigator last week! Two complaints made in February are still awaiting a decision. I am preparing a longer piece about the problems at the ICO’s office for several publications so watch this space, and please email or post comments telling me of your own experiences.

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