Government's secrecy culture blocks freedom of information,00.html

By Sean O’Neill and Jill Sherman

THE operation of the Freedom of Information Act is in severe difficulties because of a mounting backlog of appeals against Government secrecy.

The Information Commissioner’s Office, which handles complaints from people whose open government requests are refused, is struggling to cope with more than 1,200 unresolved cases.

More than half of those appeals have yet to be allocated to a caseworker. The Times is aware of cases that have been with the commissioner for three months without any action being taken. The soaring number of appeals to the watchdog is due, in part, to the work of a Whitehall unit called the Central Clearing House.

Concern is growing that the unit is bent on blocking as many requests for information as it can. Only this week it told civil servants that they could chose to “neither confirm nor deny” whether their departments even hold information that has been requested by the public.

Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, is likely to be called before MPs in the coming weeks to be asked if he has sufficient resources to deal with a workload that Whitehall’s obstructive tactics appear to be increasing.

“This is likely to lead to even more delays and more appeals to Mr Thomas,” said Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrat MP who chairs the Commons constitutional affairs committee. “Our committee has encouraged the department to promote standards of good practice but this seems to be bad practice. The ‘neither confirm nor deny’ advice appears to obstruct the intentions of the Act.

“I have no objection to someone raising exemptions under the Act but it is quite another thing to refuse to admit if they have the information at all.”

The commissioner’s staff has been deluged with 1,642 appeals in the past six months and the number is growing at a rate of five a day. There are just 28 full-time and five part-time staff handling the cases. Final judgments have been reached in fewer than 50 cases and another 380 have been withdrawn or resolved. “All we can do at the moment is apologise to people,” admitted a member of staff at the offices in Wilmslow, Cheshire.

The chaotic state of the appeal system has emerged on the day that the Government publishes the latest statistics for FoI requests.

They are expected to show a tailing-off from the first three months of the operation of the Act, during which 13,000 requests for information were made. But while original requests are tailing off, the number of appeals against refusals to disclose information is soaring.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said there was “a gigantic backlog” at the commissioner’s office. “When you look at the figures they have only made final decisions in 50 cases,” Mr Frankel said.

“The biggest problem is that there is no feedback from the Information Commissioner to inform best practice. If things are being handled badly by some authorities that bad practice will continue because it is not being corrected.”

Mr Frankel also expressed his worries about the activities of the clearing house. He said: “It plays a dual role. It is partly promoting awareness of the Act but in some areas they are trying to keep everybody in line and prevent disclosure.

“Sometimes they are refusing disclosure for reasons which I find incomprehenisble.”

Lord Clark of Windermere, the former Cabinet minister who drew up the Government’s original FoI plans, was also worried about the situation. He said: “There is quite a backlog and that certainly isn’t a very satisfactory situation.”

Mr Thomas defended his record but acknowledged that the public sector was facing “real challenges” in dealing with the Act. “It is clear that there is confusion on the part of some public authorities, particularly those outside of central government, about the requirements of the Act,” Mr Thomas said.

“Resolving complaints has frequently involved explaining in some detail to these bodies the steps which the law now requires them to take. There is also, not surprisingly, some confusion on the part of the public and much of the time spent on cases has been spent correcting misconceptions on the part of applicants.

“Finally there has been the challenge to the ICO as the regulator. In common with other FoI jurisdictions there have been some early backlogs of work. However, we are confident that in the light of experience we can streamline case handling procedures and also that the familiarity of case officers with the issues raised by complainants will reduce the time spent on individual cases.”