by politics.co.uk staff
Slow responses from government departments are undermining the effectiveness of the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act, according to a transparency group.
In a report which constitutes a damning indictment of the effectiveness of the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), the Campaign for Freedom of Information, found the average time the Office took to start investigating a complaint was eight months.
In 28 per cent of cases, there was a delay of more than a year before the investigation began and 19 cases waited more than 18 months.
The report analysed nearly 500 formal decision notices issued by the ICO in the 18 months to 31 March 2009, with the decisions being made under the FOI Act and the associated environmental information regulations.
It found that on average it took 19.7 months from the date of a complaint to the ICO to the date on which the ICO's decision on the complaint was issued.
Forty-six per cent of cases took between one and two years from complaint to decision. A quarter of formal decisions took between two and three years, while five per cent of cases took more than three years.
The longest case took three years and ten and a half months. Only 24 per cent of decisions were issued within a year of the complaint.
Examples cited in the report include:
- A complaint to the ICO in April 2005 about West Yorkshire Police's failure to release reports about gun related crime. The ICO investigation began in January 2006 and some extra information was released during the
investigation. However its final decision, requiring additional disclosure, was not issued until March 2009, three years and ten and a half months after the complaint had been made.
- The Department for Children, Schools and Families refused to release information about the government's decision in 2000 to require Leeds Local Education Authority to outsource many of its schools services to a council-owned company, later managed by Capita. The commissioner's investigation began seven months after the complaint was received. However, the decision requiring the release of much of the withheld information was not published until the end of March 2009, three years and two months after the investigation began and three years and nine months after the complaint to the ICO.
- On January 1 2005 - the day the FOI right of access came into force - a request was made for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office's analysis of a report in the Lancet medical journal, estimating the number of civilian deaths in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. The ICO investigation did not begin until October 2006, 15 months after the complaint about the FCO's response had been made. Its final decision, requiring publication of some of the withheld information, was published in March 2009, almost three years and eight months after the complaint.