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Clearing the backlog of ‘freedom of information’ complaints requires another funding boost of £750,000, the information commissioner said today.
Richard Thomas, who regulates the freedom of information act (FOIA) as the information commissioner, adjudicates on complaints about refusals by public bodies to disclose requested material. He today published a progress report on the regulator’s performance and says that the extra money is needed to clear the backlog by March 2008.
Thomas says: “Freedom of information is trans-forming the way we are governed. It challenges unnecessary official secrecy and brings into the open more and more information about the activities of government and other public services.
“The new law – a very ambitious endeavour – has had a major impact across the whole of the public sector. And it is working.”
However, the report, which itself is a month over-due, says that the complaints backlog would only be cleared by March 2008 if the regulator receives an one-off £750,000 boost for the 2007/08 financial year on top of its basic funding of £4.7 million.
It says: “With such a one-off grant, we would clear the backlog of 450 cases that we anticipate will remain at the start of 2007/08. With that grant, no case would wait more than 28 days to be allocated to a complaints team. As a result, 90% of cases would take less than nine months to close.”
Without that boost, it says, “We would continue to be able to close 50% of the new cases we receive each month within 30 days of receipt, but most of the remaining cases would have to wait in a queue before allocation to one of the complaints teams.
“This would mean a delay of approximately six months before we can investigate such cases. Overall, most of these cases would take over nine months in total to deal with, and some may take considerably longer.
“We would be unable to clear the backlog that will still remain at the start of next [financial] year. We do not consider this to be a satisfactory or acceptable level of service.
Thomas says that he has just requested the extra funds from the department for constitutional affairs, which is headed by Lord Falconer, constitutional affairs secretary.
The report says: “An early decision is vital,” adding that the information commissioner has to be “realistic about the impact any cuts will have on our performance levels and, ultimately, on those who lodge complaints with us about the ‘freedom of information’ performance of public authorities.”
“An early indication that such funding can be made available would allow us to retain existing temporary staff into the next financial year, maximising the benefit of their accumulated experience.”
The regulator had made a request for £1.13 million extra funding for the 2006/07 financial year to clear the backlog of complaints by March 2007.
But, after the financial year began, the government agreed only to an extra £550,000.
The regulator’s performance came under attack last June from MPs on the constitutional affairs committee who reviewed the first year of ‘freedom of information’ in the UK.
In March, Thomas told the MPs that 1,500 com-plaints were yet to be resolved, some 700 of which he described as a “backlog”.
Today’s report says that out of 4,400 complaints received since FOIA was fully implemented in 2005, 1,200 are said to be “work in progress”, including 700 described as the “backlog”.
“However, the volume of new cases has risen and stayed nearly 20% above projections. Even with the current level of new cases, we are closing more cases each month than we receive.
“But we remain acutely aware that we still have a substantial backlog, and that this is not reducing as quickly as planned because of the higher than expected number of cases arriving each month. The legacy backlog and the increase in new cases mean that too many cases are taking – and will continue to take – too long to resolve.”
“Output has increased from an average of just under 140 cases closed each month in 2005/06, to 245 each month closed in the first half of 2006/07.”
The information commissioner has received 225 FOIA complaints per month since January, and he expects that level to continue.
The report says: “Despite the increased number of new cases received since January this year, we believe the temporary extra funding would enable us to achieve acceptable service levels by early 2008 if intake levels remain the same.”
Ministers – already condemned for signalling last week possible measures to curb FOIA – are under pressure to accept the information commissioner’s latest request for funds to clear the complaints backlog.
Thomas is supported by the fact that the govern-ment only granted around half of his previous request, and that extra money is set to fail to clear the backlog by the previous target of March 2007.
The report says: “It has been a challenging time, but we are proud of our achievements. We experienced problems over the first 12 months, which we have tackled with great vigour.
“We can now demonstrate clear and significant improvements in our complaints handling since the beginning of 2006. We are confident that we are moving in the right direction and that our performance will continue to improve.”
“During the last months of 2005, it became clear that our performance was unsatisfactory and that changes were needed to the way ‘freedom of information’ complaints were being handled.”
The report also repeats a previous promise made by Thomas last March to MPs on the constitutional affairs committee of a tougher approach with public bodies.
It says: “Perhaps, we took too tentative an approach. This is not surprising, as many cases involved novel, and often complicated, issues of fact and law. For a range of reasons, an unacceptable backlog of complaint cases was building up.”
“When we started to address the problems, we found ourselves short of resources and expertise to achieve the step change in improvement we knew was necessary.
“With financial assistance from the department for constitutional affairs, we were able to embark on a very focused and concentrated improvement programme... The changes have increased product-ivity and throughput significantly.”
“We deliberately adopted a tolerant and non-con-frontational approach towards public bodies during 2005. We felt that public authorities needed to learn and to receive encouragement in the early days of FOIA, and that it was highly unlikely there would be evidence of systemic failure so soon.
“We welcome the support for our decision to take a firmer approach towards enforcement, using the full range of our powers to improve compliance, especially in reducing delays experienced by requestors.”
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