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MPs call for reform of freedom of information enforcement system

30 June 2006

The Constitutional Affairs Committee has published its first report into the workings in practice of the Freedom Information Act (FOIA) one year after the Act came into force.

MPs found that the Act has resulted in greater openness, with more information being released following requests made under the Act, but said that in some cases response time was poor and that the complaints procedure before the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) was not satisfactory.

Alan Beith MP, the Committee’s chairman, said that “FOI legislation can only be as good as the quality of the record management it gives us access to, and only if people can get access to the information in a timely way.”

The report criticised some public authorities for taking unduly long to consider FOIA requests, in particular when assessing public interest factors. MPs said this was contrary to the spirit of the Act and that the Department for Constitutional Affairs, to whom the ICO is accountable, should make greater efforts to improve standards.

The ICO, which is responsible for the enforcement of the right of access to information under the Act, came under fire for failing to investigate complaints promptly and for the poor quality of its investigations. MPs have asked the Information Commissioner to adopt a firmer stance on compliance and put pressure on organisations to ensure decisions are reached more quickly.

“Delays by public authorities and by the Information Commissioner’s Office in dealing with complaints are seriously undermining the effectiveness of the legislation,” said Friends of the Earth’ head of legal Phil Michaels. “It is essential that the Information Commissioner moves quickly to improve his procedures so that he can stamp down on recalcitrant public authorities with real credibility.”

The report also found flaws in the systems in place for the management of digital records, saying that, in the absence of a long term strategy, there was a strong possibility that electronic records over 10 years old would become irretrievable as technology moved on. MPs expressed particular concern over the apparent lack of leadership on the government’s part in this regard.

One major cause for the failings of the system, according to the report, is the current structure of the ICO and its accountability to the DCA. The Committee said there was a strong case for change, so that the ICO would instead be funded by and accountable to Parliament.

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