Session 2010-11
Publications on the internet
General Committee Debates
Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Freedom of Information
(Time for Compliance with request) regulations 2010

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Albert Owen 

Beresford, Sir Paul (Mole Valley) (Con) 

Blackman, Bob (Harrow East) (Con) 

Blackwood, Nicola (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con) 

Blears, Hazel (Salford and Eccles) (Lab) 

Brake, Tom (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD) 

Coffey, Ann (Stockport) (Lab) 

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)  

Ellis, Michael (Northampton North) (Con) 

Flello, Robert (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab) 

Freeman, George (Mid Norfolk) (Con) 

Huppert, Dr Julian (Cambridge) (LD) 

Kaufman, Sir Gerald (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab) 

Macleod, Mary (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con) 

McDonnell, John (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab) 

McCrea, Dr William (South Antrim) (DUP) 

Reynolds, Jonathan (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op) 

Vaz, Valerie (Walsall South) (Lab) 

Wright, Jeremy (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)  

Eliot Wilson, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

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Third Delegated Legislation Committee 

Tuesday 9 November 2010  

[Albert Owen in the Chair] 

Draft Freedom of Information (Time for Compliance with Request) Regulations 2010 

4.30 pm 

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly):  I beg to move, 

That the Committee has considered the draft Freedom of Information (Time for Compliance with Request) Regulations 2010. 

It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. The purpose of the regulations is to allow academies more time to respond to freedom of information requests to take account of school closures—for example, during school holidays. The Freedom of Information Act gives any person the legal right to request access to recorded information held by a public authority. The Act applies to more than 100,000 public authorities, and last year central Government-monitored bodies received more than 40,000 requests. Under the Act, freedom of information requests must be responded to “promptly” and normally within 20 working days. It is right that people making requests should receive a timely response. 

However, there are limited occasions on which the deadline is impractical. That is why regulations were previously made in 2004 and 2009 to provide all maintained schools in England and Wales and schools and pupil referral units in Northern Ireland with an extension to the usual 20 working day time limit in dealing with FOI requests in certain circumstances. 

The Academies Act 2010 extended the Freedom of Information Act to proprietors of academies. Like other schools, academies can face difficulties in answering requests received during holidays and other times when they are closed and unstaffed. That is a particular problem during the summer holidays, which can be about six weeks long. Without the extension, academies might unavoidably miss the deadlines provided for under the Act. These regulations will ensure that proprietors of academies have the same reasonable allowance in respect of the time limit for responding to requests as all other schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland subject to the FOI Act. 

However, the regulations do not give academies licence to drag their feet over FOI responses. Section 10 of the Act still requires public authorities to deal with FOI requests “promptly”. If it is possible for an academy to respond to a request earlier, the response cannot be delayed until the end of the extended time limit. If the regulations are made, proprietors of academies will not have to count any day that is not a school day, such as during school holidays, towards the period of 20 working days within which requests have to be answered. However, under the regulations, requests must be answered within a maximum of 60 working days, including any period of closure. 

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The regulations will put academies on a comparable footing to other schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. They will ensure that academies are not disadvantaged in fulfilling their FOI obligations as a result of factors beyond their control. I therefore commend the regulations to the Committee and hope that hon. Members agree with me that this necessary and common-sense measure should proceed. 

4.33 pm 

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab):  I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Owen; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the Minister for his explanation of the regulations. The Opposition welcome the regulations and will not oppose them, as I am sure the Committee will be delighted to hear. As has been mentioned, the previous Labour Government introduced similar regulations in 2004 and 2009, extending freedom of information compliance times for governing bodies of grant-maintained nursery schools, schools maintained by the Secretary of State for Defence, managers of controlled schools, voluntary schools, grant-maintained integrated schools and pupil referral units. We see the latest regulations as being in the same vein. 

However, I have a couple of questions for the Minister. I shall keep them brief so that we do not detain the Committee longer than necessary. First, so we may understand the impact of the regulations, I should be grateful if the Minister would advise the Committee on how many of the organisations included in the 2004 and 2009 regulations required the additional time to comply with freedom of information requests. More specifically, how many times in the last year were academies, as we know them currently, unable to comply with the freedom of information compliance target of 20 days? Given that the regulations will apply to the proprietor of an academy, what evidence does the Minister have that proprietors—I stress the word “proprietors”—of academies, unlike the academy itself, adhere to a timetable other than the school timetable? For example, if a proprietor of an academy is an existing business or philanthropic organisation that does not have a timetable similar to a school timetable, what evidence is there that it would have a problem in complying with FOI requests? 

That is the extent of the questions that I have for the Minister, and I am grateful to him for his explanation. 

4.35 pm 

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD):  The Committee will be pleased to hear that I also do not intend to delay proceedings this afternoon, although I wish to put on record the fact that I think that this is a perfectly reasonable request. However, the Minister will be aware that the information commissioner has recently commented rather critically on the failure of various Departments and other bodies to respond within an appropriate timescale. I hope that the Minister will use this opportunity to put on record his expectation that academies will respond within this agreed extended period of time. 

I wonder also whether the Minister is aware that the coalition programme talks about extending the scope of FOI. He may be aware that on Friday this week we have the Second Reading of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, which I am promoting. It calls on,

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for instance, Network Rail and other companies doing public sector work to be brought into the scope of FOI. The Minister may not want to comment on that now, but I flag it up as an issue to which I hope we can return at some time in the near future. 

4.37 pm 

Mr Djanogly:  I shall go through the points that were made. In relation to the information collected on the time periods taken by academies to answer FOI requests, I am afraid that academies have only been included in the FOI system since the Academies Act 2010, which is too short a time to enable me to comment on their timeliness. 

On the extended deadline and how many schools have used it, we do not know, because we do not collect that information centrally. It is done school by school, so it would have to be collected on a more localised basis. I can tell the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South that the information commissioner has told us

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that to date he has never highlighted to the Ministry of Justice any particular problem with schools. That is not to say that there are no such problems, but the information will be available locally. 

As for proprietors, I suppose that the answer depends on whether they are public bodies. If they are public bodies—although I am not sure that any proprietors of academies are public bodies—the FOI would apply. 

In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington, I take his point and use this opportunity to say to all schools—because the 60-day period applies to them—that they should not view the 60-day period as a maximum rather than a minimum. They should respond to FOI requests as soon as they can, and not take the 60 days as the maximum period. 

Question put and agreed to.  

4.39 pm 

Committee rose.