Government departments are rejecting a record number of Freedom of Information requests, according to latest figures, with over a third of requests fully withheld.
The annual publication of departmental FOI statistics showed there were 49,961 requests to government departments and public bodies in 2018, up 7% from 2017. Four Whitehall departments – the Department for Work and Pensions, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office – received more than of the total requests to government departments, the fifth year in a row they had fielded the majority of requests.
The Health and Safety Executive and The National Archives accounted for more than half (53%) of the requests to other monitored bodies, according to the bulletin, published yesterday by the Cabinet Office.
Of the total number of requests, 36,498 were deemed to be fully resolvable, meaning that it is possible to give a substantive decision on whether to release the requested information.
Government departments and bodies refused 39% of the resolvable cases in full, twp percentage points more than in 2017. This continues an upward trend in the number of FOI requests that public bodies have rejected, which stood at only 25% in 2010.
The bulletin revealed that six departments rejected more than half of the resolvable FOI requests in 2018. Top of the knockback list was the Cabinet Office, which rejected 58%; the Department for Exiting the European Union, which rejected 54%; and the Ministry of Justice, with turned down 53%. Other departments rejecting more than half of their queries in full were the Department for International Trade (52%), Department of Health and Social Care (51%) and the Northern Ireland Office (51%).
The highest proportion of requests approved in full in government was at the Wales Office, at 73%, with five other departments above 50%: the Scotland Office (63%), the Attorney General's Office (59%), the Department for Transport (58%), the Department for Education (55%) and UK Export Finance (51%). Other outcomes recorded in the report are requests that are partially withheld or have not yet been responded to.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office also ranked at the bottom of the list for departments granting full requests, publishing just 23% of resolvable FOI demands. However, it fully rejected only 39%, with 31% partially withheld and 6% yet to be responded to.
Responding to the figures, a Cabinet Office spokesperson told CSW’s sister site PoliticsHome: "We are committed to transparency and Freedom of Information and this government is proactively releasing more data than ever before.
"However, the Cabinet Office holds information relating to some of the most complex and sensitive issues in government. It is right that information is withheld where necessary, for example to protect the interests of national security".
A DExEU spokesperson added: "The department was set up to deliver the UK's exit from the EU and our work involves formulating negotiating positions on sensitive and complex areas.
"While we are committed to being as transparent as possible we also have to consider the way any information we release to the public could affect our objectives.
"All FOI requests are dealt with in line with the guidelines set by the Information Commissioner's Office, which is an independent body."
Gavin Freeguard, the head of data and transparency at the Institute for Government, pointed out that DExEU had improved the amount of information it releases and its response times during the last quarter of 2018.
And he said departments had in some cases been battling a higher volume of requests with fewer staff.
“Between 2005 and 2009, departments typically received fewer than 5,000 requests between them per quarter," he said.
“Since 2013, it’s been more like 8,000. We know some departments have fewer staff dealing with FOI than a few years ago, and even where numbers have stayed the same, it might not have kept pace with the rise in numbers [of FOI requests].”