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Photo: Conservative Party – Flickr.

The Department of Education were 181 days late in replying to a Freedom of Information request last year, it has been revealed.

For the first three months of 2013 the Department of Education has been monitored on its responses to Freedom of Information requests by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for its poor performance in responding to requests.

The DfE was picked because they had failed to respond to 85% of FOI requests within the 20 working days allowed by the act, or had exceeded the time limit by a significant margin in numerous cases.

The ICO, who are undoubtedly reviewing the FOI performance of Michael Gove’s department of during the three months, may take action if they do not see an improvement.

A request to the department, which they initially refused, shows the number of days they took to respond to overdue requests for the first nine months of last year and puts into context why they are being monitored.

The figures show:

  • One request was 181 days overdue before it was responded to.
  • As of February 2013 there was one request still not answered from the first three months of 2012, one request not answered that was submitted in the second three months and four outstanding requests from July to September.
  • 12 requests were responded to more than 100 days late.
  • On 76 occasions the department responded to requests that were 50 or more days overdue.

However, it was a struggle to get the Department of Education to publish this information.

At the beginning of November one requester asked for the number of requests the department received, how many were replied to late and of those which were how many days each was overdue by.

Quite rightly the DfE pointed out to the requester that the information was already in the public domain, as it is published quarterly by the Ministry of Justice, and therefore exempt under Section 21. They gave him the links to the latest information.

However the eagle-eyed requester, Rodney Breen, pointed out the number of days each request was overdue by is not published by the MoJ and asked for his request to be reviewed and to have the point addressed properly.

He was told that as the figures are not needed for publication the “Department does not collect that information” and for them to do so they “would need to commission a program to extract the information from our correspondence handling system, collate it and put it in the format requested.”

Launching a tirade in response Mr Breen told the department he would take up the work himself, if there system was not capable of producing a “simple report”.

I am sure you will be as troubled as I am by the discovery that, despite being monitored by the Information Commissioner’s Office for serious delays in responses to FOI requests, your Department is apparently clueless as to how long these requests are overdue.

In fact, I think we may have identified a key element of the problem – if your correspondence monitoring system cannot produce a simple report identifying overdue requests and how long they are overdue for, and alert staff so that they can take immediate action, it’s not at all surprising that we’ve got into this unfortunate mess in the first place.

This response was on January 4th 2013 – the original request was on November 1st . The Department for Education responded on February 1st.

Just three months after the original request they said:

“We have been able to extract this information held from our correspondence handling system. This information is attached.”

You can see the full FOI exchange here.

I am a journalist and author. I am a staff writer at the UK edition of WIRED magazine and in 2015 my book, Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists, was published. I created FOI Directory in 2012.