DIT told to improve ‘unacceptable’ Freedom of Information delays

ICO also tells BEIS to improve disclosure practices as part of new willingness to act on poor performance
DIT has 35 days to respond to the ICO's notice with an action plan. Photo: Mae/Pixabay

The Information Commissioner’s Office has served its first Freedom of Information enforcement notice in seven years on the Department for International Trade, giving it just over a month to publish a plan on how it will cut delayed responses to requests.

The department failed to respond to more than half of the 129 FOI requests it received between January and March within the 20 working-day statutory time limit, the worst figures on timeliness of response of all central government bodies. Its performance declined due to failings of internal processes, rather than other factors such as increased volumes.

“The [information] commissioner considers it unacceptable for any government department to fail to meet its statutory duties in more than half of the requests for information it received for the quarter,” the ICO said in its enforcement notice, adding that complaints about the department not complying with its obligations have also appeared in its own casework.

“For the first time in seven years, the ICO has issued a Freedom of Information enforcement notice, which clearly marks the start of our new approach to regulating the Act,” information commissioner John Edwards said.

Although the department said it has identified why responses were delayed and put measures in place which have led to improvements, the ICO has issued an enforcement notice which requires the department to publish an action plan within 35 days to close at least 89% of requests within the statutory limit. 

“We are fully committed to our transparency obligations and responded to over 500 FOI requests received last year. We continue to evaluate and improve our internal processes and will respond to the ICO in due course,” a spokesperson for the department said.

The ICO also issued a practice recommendation notice to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, similarly due to failing to respond to many FoI requests within the time limit with only 63% inside this for the first quarter of 2022.

This notice similarly asks the department creates an action plan to increase this to 89%. However, it is not legally binding and the department is asked to write to the commissioner by the end of the year. The ICO said the department has already taken some action and engaged with it on this.

A BEIS spokesperson said: “The ICO recognises the generally high standard of BEIS’ Freedom of Information responses and the significant impact caused by the 55% increase in requests since the pandemic began.

“We are committed to handling requests in a timely way while managing this alongside tackling the energy crisis and driving economic growth, and we are engaging with the ICO’s office on the next steps.” 

Information commissioner John Edwards added: “I advise public authorities to take note and learn lessons from the action we have taken today, as we will be making greater use of our powers under the Act to drive good practice and compliance.”

This article first appeared on CSW's sister title PublicTechnology

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