Watchdog probes Ministry of Justice over Freedom of Information concerns

Speed of MoJ's responses to Freedom of Information requests comes under scrutiny from the Information Commissioner's Office

By matt.foster

11 Sep 2015

The Information Commissioner's Office is to monitor the Ministry of Justice amid concern that the department is not responding to Freedom of Information requests quickly enough. 

Under the Freedom of Information Act – which grants access to information held by public bodies – departments are required to respond to requests from members of the public within 20 days, or in time to meet an agreed extension.

The ICO announced on Friday that it would begin monitoring the performance of the justice ministry after the latest figures showed that the department had met either the 20-day deadline or an extension in just 76% of cases. 

Related articles
Freedom of Information review to consider balance between open government and "frank advice"
Downing Street: "strong case" for revisiting FOI law
Cabinet Office unveils outsourcing transparency 'principles'
Compliance in the Cloud: Be sure and secure

The information watchdog said that figure was "well below" the 85% threshold it deemed acceptable.

"Transparency is a cornerstone of a modern democracy and public authorities must respect people’s rights of access to information," the deputy information commissioner Graham Smith said.

"That means responding to FOI requests within the statutory timeline of 20 working days, or with a short permitted extension where weighing up the public interest is particularly complex.

"We hope the Ministry of Justice uses this monitoring period to bring about significant improvements in this aspect of its service to the public. Statutory time limits are not optional."

The Ministry of Justice received the third-highest number of requests of all government departments during the last quarter, according to the latest figures, just behind the Ministry of Defence. The Department for Work and Pensions received the highest number of requests.

The ICO's intervention is not the first time a government department has come under scrutiny for its failure to meet freedom of information deadlines. At the start of 2014, the ICO monitored the Cabinet Office after what Information Commissioner Christopher Graham (pictured) said had been a "particularly disappointing" downturn in its response times.

The government received almost 13,000 FOI requests in the first quarter of the year, the most recent data show, with 90% of the responses complying with the rules on timeliness. 

Just before the summer recess, ministers announced that former Treasury permanent secretary Lord Burns would lead a cross-party review of the FOI act. According to the Cabinet Office – which has also taken over responsibility for FOI policy from the MoJ – the review will consider whether there is an "appropriate" balance between "transparency, accountability and the need for sensitive information to have robust protection".

Read the most recent articles written by matt.foster - Top civil servants Robert Devereux & Chris Wormald stick up for spads

Share this page