2015 marked the tenth anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act being implemented in the UK.
The Cabinet Office has now published statistics for the full year, which brings the available data up to the decade mark.
The stats held by the government department cover the performance of central government departments and 20 other monitored bodies (this later group includes the Food Standards Agency, Charity Commission, Royal Mint and other centrally controlled authorities).
Other types of public authorities covered by FOI – councils, NHS bodies, police forces, etc – do not have to keep figures on their performance under the Act. For the benefit of the following analysis only central government figures have been included.
These are the general trends from the last 10 years:
FOI requests rose to a high point but are now declining
Requests to central government peaked in 2013 when 35,179 were made. In the two years since then there have been fewer questions asked of the authorities Up to 2013 there was a gradual increase in requests following an initial interest, which then dropped off.
In general the government has got better at answering FOI requests within the deadline
As would be expected with the passing of time government departments have as a whole (excluding some that shall not be named here) got better at responding to FOIs within 20 working days – the period of time allowed in the legislation.
The first year of the Act saw 70% of requests, which hadn’t been put on hold, answered on time. In 2015 83% of requests were answered within the deadline; the peak for requests being responded to inside the limits was 2012 (86%). Every year since 2010 has seen the department’s of state respond on time to more than 80% of requests.
The Information Commissioners Office, which is responsible for FOI enforcement, says public authorities should have a minimum target of responding to requests on time in 85% of cases.
The figures look a lot better for government departments, if you include those that they are allowed to extend. (These are for qualified exemptions when the time limit can be extended to an unlimited but ‘reasonable’ length of time).
The number of requests getting all the information they asked for is going down
During the early years of the FOI Act those making requests were more likely to get a full response to their questions.
The statistics are based on ‘resolvable requests’. They are defined as: “Resolvable requests” are all those where it is possible to make a substantive decision on whether to release the requested information.”
The first three years of the FOI Act saw the highest percentage of requests being granted in full (60%, 63%, and 63%). Across the decade this downward trend has continued.
In 2015 the fewest number of FOI requests were granted in full: 49%. This is the first time that the number of requests granted in full dropped below half.
In tandem with the decrease in FOI requests granted in full there has also been an increase in the number of resolvable requests withheld in full. This has been particularly prevalent in the last five years.
If you appeal you have the same chance of it being overturned as it was 10 years ago
The number of internal reviews of FOI requests that get overturned range from 21% to 27% across the ten years. The vast majority of internal reviews get upheld but the fifth that don’t will have provided more information than if the requests weren’t challenged.