The Cabinet Office and FOI

On 2 June 2015 the ICO issued an enforcement notice to the Department of Finance and Personnel for Northern Ireland (DFPNI) that ordered them to answer four outstanding freedom of information requests that are over six months old. This was only the 4th such notice that the ICO has issued relating to poor FOI performance and the first FOI enforcement notice that the ICO has issued since 2010.

The ICO doesn’t publish a set of criteria that it uses to decide whether it is appropriate to issue an enforcement notice, but taking this latest notice as a guide, it seems that the Cabinet Office would almost certainly qualify. Here is a list of 12 FOI requests made via WhatDoTheyKnow where the Cabinet Office seems to be over 500 working days late in responding. In each case, the Cabinet Office has acknowledged receipt of the request:

  1. On 6 April 2010 a request was made asking for information about specific items of Cabinet Office spending. The Cabinet Office acknowledged receipt on 12 April 2010. This request remains unanswered and a response is now 1,268 working days late.
  2. On 26 May 2010 a request was made asking for information about the cost of rebranding government buildings following the 2010 General Election. The Cabinet Office acknowledged receipt on 2 June 2010. This request remains unanswered and a response is now 1,234 working days late.
  3. On 25 June 2010 a request was made asking for information about open source software use by the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office acknowledged receipt on 29 June 2010. This request remains unanswered and a response is now 1,213 working days late.
  4. On 19 August 2010 a request was made asking for information about the Cabinet Office’s receipts and spending budgets for 2009 and 2010. The Cabinet Office acknowledged receipt on 24 August 2010. This request remains unanswered and a response is now 1,176 working days late.
  5. On 27 October 2010 a request was made asking for information about the 2010 IT project review. The Cabinet Office acknowledged receipt on 29 October 2010. This request remains unanswered and a response is now 1,127 working days late.
  6. On 24 December 2010 a request was made asking for information about various Cabinet Office services. The Cabinet Office acknowledged receipt on 4 January 2011 and wrote to the requester on 8 February 2011 to say that they hoped to respond to the request “shortly”. This request remains unanswered and a response is now 1,086 working days late.
  7. On 13 February 2011 a request was made asking for information about spending on first class rail travel. The Cabinet Office acknowledged receipt on 14 February 2011 and wrote to the requester on 19 April 2011 to say that they were working on the request and would let the requester have a response “in due course”.  On 23 May 2011 they started an internal review to investigate why their response was delayed. Both the request and the internal review remain unanswered and a response is now 1,054 working days late.
  8. On 1 August 2011 a request was made asking for various information about Civil Service Learning. The Cabinet Office acknowledged receipt on 2 August 2011. This request remains unanswered and a response is now 942 working days late.
  9. On 24 August 2011 a request was made asking for information about radiation monitoring around the UK. The Cabinet Office failed to acknowledge receipt. On 21 October 2011 they wrote to the requester to say that the request has not been logged on the day it was received due to an “unfortunate administrative error, but that the request had now been “assigned to the relevant department” and that it was “being dealt with swiftly”. This request remains unanswered and a response is now 926 working days late.
  10. On 11 October 2011 a request was made asking for information regarding the decision to separate the roles of Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service. The Cabinet Office acknowledged receipt on 12 October 2011. This request remains unanswered and a response is now 892 working days late.
  11. On 10 February 2012 a request was made asking for the minutes of the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Devolution Scotland, Wales and the Regions. The Cabinet Office acknowledged receipt on 13 February 2012. This request remains unanswered and a response is now 809 working days late.
  12. On 29 April 2013 a request was made asking for information about FOI requests relating to Bradford and Bingley. The Cabinet Office acknowledged receipt on 29 April 2013 and wrote on 31 May 2013 to say that they hoped to respond by 26 June 2013. This request remains unanswered and a response is now 529 working days late.

Of course, some these requests may have been responded to outwith of WhatDoTheyKnow, but there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case. It seems certain that there will many other requests made using other channels where a response will also be significantly overdue.

The issue of the Cabinet Office’s poor timeliness is not a new one, (see these posts for more examples) and yet the ICO is still reluctant to take meaningful action. The ICO are certainly well aware of the problems that FOI requesters have in trying to get the Cabinet Office to respond to requests, as these recent decision notices demonstrate:

  1. FS50569096, issued on 26 May 2015, relates to a request for information about the number of honours awarded to serving civil servants made on 15 June 2014. The ICO noted that “By the date of this notice the Cabinet Office had yet to provide a substantive response to the request.” The response to this request was at least 213 working days late.
  2. FS50573978, issued on 18 May 2015, relates to a request for the phone number of the unit/department within the Cabinet Office responsible for handling FOI requests made on 7 February 2015. The ICO noted that “By the date of this decision notice the Cabinet Office has still not issued a response to the request, despite the Commissioner also having notified it of the details of this complaint on 30 March, 17 April and 27 April 2015. ” This request remains unanswered and a response is now 62 working days late.
  3. FS50565962, issued on 8 April 2015, relates to a request about the Cabinet Office’s work with the Behavioural Insights Team made on 29 October 2014. The ICO noted that “At the time of writing the CO had failed to respond substantively to the request.” The response to this request was at least 188 working days late.
  4. FS50566237, issued on 18 March 2015, relates to a request for information about the Public Duty Costs Allowance made on 31 October 2014. The ICO noted that “Three further prompts from the complainant sent to the Cabinet Office on 26 December 2014, 1 January 2015 and 23 January 2015 have failed to elicit any response. To date, a substantive response to the request has not been issued.” The response to this request was at least 73 working days late.
  5. FS50565672, issued on 25 February 2015, relates to a request for information about the Carr Inquiry made on 16 October 2014. The ICO noted that “The Commissioner contacted the Cabinet Office on 5 January 2015 and asked it to provide the complainant with a response to his request within the next 10 working days” but “The complainant contacted the Commissioner on 22 January and again on 9 February 2015, to confirm that he had not received a response to his request.”  Despite this request by the Commissioner, as of the date of the decision notice, no substantive response had been provided. The response to this request was at least 69 working days late.
  6. FS50559560, issued on 25 February 2015, refers to a request for information about awards or titles relating to Cyril Smith made on 28 April 2014. The ICO noted that “By the date of this notice the Cabinet Office had yet to provide a substantive response to the request.” The response to this request was at least 186 working days late.

Perhaps part of the problem is that current Information Commissioner considers decision notices to be meaningful enforcement action even in cases where there are a systematic problems and even where multiple DNs have already been issued.  Perhaps a lack of funding for FOI enforcement is to blame. None of this however, explains why the Cabinet Office can continue to get away with it when the DPFNI cannot. Whatever the reason, I think that it will take a change of Commissioner and a change of attitude in Wilmslow before we see anything done and I fear that this website will not need updating for some time to come.

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One thought on “The Cabinet Office and FOI

  1. The same Deputy Information Commissioner with responsibility has been in post since FOI was implemented in 2005. The Commissioner changed during this process, but the scant FOI enforcement has been consistent. Meanwhile, the current Commissioner has presided over much more DP and PECR enforcement than his predecessor, so while he should take responsibility, I do not think he is the problem. I very much doubt that the next Commissioner will make any difference unless the day-to-day management of FOI is also shaken up.

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