In a big shakeup, public authorities subject to the Freedom of Information Act will have to answer more requests within the 20 working day period.
Minutes from the Information Commissioner’s Office, spotted by Jon Baines, show the regulator is going to increase the required on-time response rate to 90 per cent.
At present to avoid being ‘monitored’ by the ICO public authorities are told they should reply to at least 85 per cent of FOI requests on-time. In this context it the timeframe includes within the 20 working days set out by the FOI legislation, or where a request cannot be answered within the working day period but the person asking for info has been told.
If public authorities repeatedly fail to answer requests at the 85 per cent threshold they may be watched by the ICO or face enforcement action (although this has only happened four times in 11 years).
The minutes from the ICO’s senior management team meeting on November 21 outline the changes. They say: “It was felt that increasing the threshold would send a message that the ICO regards the statutory obligations under the Freedom of Information Act as a serious issue.”
The ICO also considered raising the percentage to 95 and did not rule out doing so in the future.
The change will mean staff within FOI offices around the country will have to increase efficiency to meet the new requirement. It is currently not known when the change will be implemented and the ICO has been asked to clarify this point. The minutes also say this applies to local authorities but it is likely the change would impact all those covered by the FOI Act.
The increase in compliance will be greeted by FOI requesters who feel their questions cannot be answered properly. Since the FOI Act has been in force multiple public authorises have been criticised for slow responses. Recently the Home Office and Cabinet Office have come under-fire for their performances. London’s Metropolitan Police has been monitored by the ICO for more than three years.
At present the only regular statistics published on FOI response times are from central government. Local authorities (including police forces, councils and NHS bodies) are not required to publish stats on how many requests they answer on time. This could also change in the future, with the government’s 2016 FOI review recommending public bodies with more than 100 staff provide stats for FOI performance. In Scotland, statistics are more widely published.