Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Andrew Watson

About the Author

This submission is being made in a personal capacity, not as a representative of any organisation. The author has over 30 years’ experience in the IT industry, and has made approximately 35 FOI requests of various public bodies over the past five years while investigating public policy on privacy issues.

Summary

Broadly speaking, the Act does work effectively. For the private citizen, the best way to use the Act is undoubtedly via the independent What Do They Know web site, which makes the submission process straightforward and automatically publishes the results on the Internet. Many Whitehall departments and national authorities systematically delay FOI responses until the 20th day after the original submission, which doesn’t help their reputation for openness. Several authorities also seem to arbitrarily pick and choose which FOI responses they publish on their own web sites. In my experience, when an authority has unjustifiably rejected a request or redacted a response, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has always forced it to release the requested information, although at the cost of considerable delay. Two ways to improve the operation of the Act would be to fund the What Do They Know web site, and provide more funding to the ICO.

1. The committee asks three questions:

Does the Freedom of Information Act work effectively?

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Freedom of Information Act?

Is the Act operating in the way that it was intended to?

2. Broadly speaking, the Act does work effectively. Almost all the public authorities to which I have sent FOI requests have supplied the information that I have requested. As far as I can tell, the Act is operating in the way that it was intended to. My research into public policy on privacy issues would have been impossible without the Act.

3. Almost all my FOI requests have been submitted via the independently-run What Do They Know web site (http://www.whatdotheyknow.com). I cannot speak too highly of this facility, which makes submitting requests and publishing the results very straightforward for the requester. In an ideal world, government itself would have provided a cheap, simple, effective front-end to FOIA just like this one. However, since What Do They Know is now well-established, central government should not waste public money duplicating its functions. Instead, a grant to the charity that runs it would underline government’s commitment to openness at low cost.

4. Although almost all public authorities do respond to FOIA requests, I have found a general air of foot-dragging at Whitehall departments and national government agencies. The Act says that “A public authority must comply with section 1(1) promptly and in any event not later than the twentieth working day following the date of receipt. However, most Whitehall departments apparently re-interpret this as “A public authority shall respond on precisely the 20th working day after receipt of the request”. While it would be understandable if some requests took the full 20 days, it’s clear that some departments automatically delay every response until the 20th day. The committee could usefully gather statistics on response times from individual departments to ensure that they are complying with the spirit of the Act.

5. By contrast, several local councils have responded to my FOI requests within a few days. I commend them for complying with the spirit of the Act.

6. Most public authorities maintain logs of FOI disclosures on their web sites, although the Act does not require them to do so. However, these logs are not comprehensive. I have noticed that several authorities have not published their responses to my FOI requests on their logs, even when those logs do contain large numbers of other responses. The committee might be interested to ask public authorities how they choose which responses to publish on their web sites.

7. I’ve had to request internal reviews of several FOIA responses. It is a weakness of the Act that there is no statutory time-limit for this review. The Information Commissioner publishes guidelines to public authorities specifying that “the Commissioner considers that a reasonable time for completing an internal review is 20 working days from the date of the request for review ... In our view, in no case should the total time taken exceed 40 working days.” In my view, these limits should be enshrined in legislation.

8. In two or three cases I have had to appeal a refused or excessively-redacted FOI request to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). While the ICO does an excellent job, and provides a truly independent review of the authorities’ decision to withhold information, because the ICO is chronically under-funded, those reviews can take months. In my view, the ICO should be allocated more resources for handling FOI appeals.

February 2012

Prepared 25th July 2012