New information commissioner hints at tougher FOI rules for slow departments

Written by Rebecca Hill on 1 September 2016 in News

Elizabeth Denham, the UK's new information commissioner, has said she is considering making it easier to for her office to step in when departments are slow to respond to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

New information commissioner Elizabeth Denham sets out her stall - Photo credit: DCMS

Denham took up the post in July, succeeding Christopher Graham as the head of the independent body that upholds information rights and ensures that public authorities comply with transparency rules.

She has held senior positions working in data regulation in Canada for 12 years, and in her first interview since taking the UK role, Denham told the BBC's Martin Rosenbaum that she was "looking at" changing the threshold that allows her organisation to step in when departments are failing to respond to information requests in a timely manner.

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Under the Freedom of Information Act, departments are required to respond to 85% requests from members of the public within 20 days, or in time to meet an agreed extension.

Failure to do so can trigger special monitoring from the ICO, with departments including the Ministry of Justice and the Cabinet Office being subject to such an intervention in recent years. The Metropolitan Police and Trafford Council are both currently having their response rates monitored.

But the new information watchdog suggested the 85% threshold still gave public bodies too much leeway, and said organisations with a track record of slow responses, including the  Metropolitan Police and the Cabinet Office should be "leaders in FOI".

"I'm going to be looking at that threshold," Denham told the BBC. "Looking at this from the outside, most of the public would have the view that more than one in 10 not getting a timely response to a request is not a sign of success."

Elsewhere in her interview, Denham said she also wanted to discuss ways to extend FOI law to cover public services delivered by the private sector. 

Ministers have so far resisted extending FOI to private suppliers, although the Cabinet Office last year set out a range of transparency "principles" that outsourcing firms would be expected to sign up to, including a promise that all public sector contracts would in future be drawn up with "a presumption in favour of disclosing information" to the public.

Denham told the BBC: "Private contractors above a certain threshold for a contract or doing some specific types of work could be included under the FOI Act. 

"The government could do more to include private bodies that are basically doing work on behalf of the public."

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This article first appeared on PublicTechnology's sister site, Civil Service World.

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