Information Commissioner Christopher Graham
Information Commissioner Christopher Graham

The future of funding for Freedom of Information in the UK has reached a ‘critical’ level, the regulator in charge of the laws has said. 

In meeting minutes published by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) the view is expressed that without a change in funding the office wouldn’t be able to do more than ‘basic’ FOI inquiries.

It also said that the future funding model was thought to be in a ‘critical’ state.

The ICO is responsible for handing Data Protection and Freedom of Information Issues. Funding for data protection comes from a fee payable by data controllers under the Data Protection Act.

While funding for FOI issues comes from a grant-in-aid from the Ministry of Justice. The money for each purpose cannot be transferred to support the other area.

The comments were spotted by the Campaign for Freedom of Informationwho tweeted about them.

The minutes said:

“The issue of the ICO’s future funding model was now thought to be critical. If grant in aid was cut further, action on anything other than routine freedom of information enquiries would be impossible.

It was important that the ICO was seen to be adequately resourced and thus able to provide proportionate regulation.

“The Commissioner noted that the meeting with the Deputy Prime Minister’s Special Adviser had been postponed until 7 May.

“The ICO would be approaching all three major parties about the need for primary legislation on funding in the first session of the next parliament.”

The future of the ICO’s funding for FOI has been a concern for some time.

As part of evidence submitted to the the Justice Select Committee’s review of FOI in 2012 the Information Commissioner commented on the fact that the performance of the office would not be as effective if funding was continued to be cut.

In the evidence submitted the ICO said:

“The Commissioner clearly recognises that such reductions are inevitable in the current economic climate. However, he must point out that this has an impact. Significantly improved performance through efficiency has been demonstrated despite these reductions in funding, but there are limits as to what more can be achieved.”

Funding cuts to the office of the Information Commissioner in Australia has recently forced the office to be disbanded and services spread across to different government departments.

This is a worrying development that indicates that the government may not be fully committed to FOI laws and the demands of handling complaints.

The Guardian reported:

The job of fielding freedom of information complaints was transferred to the commonwealth ombudsman without any consultation or extra funding, Senate Estimates heard on Thursday.

The office of the Australian information commissioner will be disbanded as part of the federal government’s budget measures, with its functions split across several different agencies.

Hopefully this won’t happen in the UK.

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.