The Cabinet Office has recently released its latest quarterly statistics on information requests that 41 central government bodies have received under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR). The report makes interesting reading covering as it does the:
- Initial handling of FOI requests.
- Number of requests that have been received during the quarter from April to June 2016.
- Timeliness of issuing a substantive response.
- Rates of disclosure of requested information.
- Exemptions that are applied when withholding information.
FOIA and the EIR introduced a general right of access to information held by public authorities. A request for disclosure of information can be refused if a statutory exemption applies, although most of the exemptions are qualified by a public interest test so that the public authority must still disclose the information if it is in the public interest to do so.
Volume of requests
In relation to the number of requests made, the report shows that 11,037 requests were received over the three-month period (April to June 2016). Although this seems a large number, the figure actually represents a 4% reduction (that is 462 less requests) compared to the number of requests in the previous year. Around two thirds of these requests (that is 7,349) were to state departments, with the remaining 3,688 being received by other monitored bodies. Over 50% of the requests to state departments were to the Department for Work and Pensions, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office. Of the other monitored bodies, the Health and Safety Executive and the National Archives alone accounted for over 50% of the requests received. Although the total volume of requests fluctuated, the statistical information shows that the relative volume of requests for the monitored bodies has remained fairly stable.
The statistics show that the Department for Work and Pensions experienced the largest decrease in requests (370 less than for the same period in 2015); in contrast, the Ministry of Defence saw the largest increase over the same period (that is 165 more requests than for the same period in 2015).
Public bodies are required under section 10 of FOIA to respond to requests for information in a timely manner (that is within 20 working days of receiving the request although the National Archives have a deadline of 30 working days for retrieving information) or, if the “public interest test” applies, within such time as is reasonable in the circumstances. The Information Commissioner has stated that he considers 40 days to be the maximum length of time that an authority should reasonably take to assess public interest considerations (see Legal updates, ICO issues Good Practice Notes on time limits under FOIA and New guidance on the time limit for responding under FOIA and the EIR published by ICO). In relation to complex requests for environmental information, there is a permitted deadline extension for complex requests under the EIR.
The government’s target is to achieve a 90% “in time” response. Out of the 41 monitored bodies, 27 met the target in April to June 2016. Across all state departments, 89% of requests were responded to “in time”. That figure remains unchanged from the same period in 2015. Across all the other monitored bodies, 94% met the response target time, which represented an increase from 93% in the same period in 2015.
The 11,037 “non-routine” requests that were received in the April to June 2016 quarter were divided into those requests that were resolvable (8,040 being 73% of the total number) and the remainder (2,973 that is 27% of the total) that were not. Broadly speaking, the definition of “non-routine” excludes the kind of requests that were commonly made before the FOIA came into force, such as requests from governmental agencies and parliamentary questions. Non-routine requests are those that are referred to the public authority’s FOIA officers and are considered under the FOIA criteria for disclosure.
Of those requests that were resolvable, that is where it was possible to give a substantive decision on whether to release the requested information:
- 3,546 were granted in full.
- 3,961 were withheld in full or in part where:
- 55 were vexatious (as defined in section 14 of FOIA);
- 27 were repeated;
- 1,219 exceeded the cost of response limit defined in section 12 of FOIA;
- 2,660 involved information that was subject to one of the exemptions listed under sections 22 to 44 of FOIA; and
- 533 remained to be processed.
A further 2,973 were not capable of being resolved. Of these:
- 867 required further clarity and “advice and assistance” was therefore provided on how to reformulate the request.
- 2,106 involved information that was not held by the responding body.
Under FOIA, public bodies can only refuse to provide information that they hold which has been requested if the information falls within one of the exemptions specified in the legislation. For the 2,600 requests that were exempted from response under the different sections of FOIA, the section 40 exemption (covering personal information) was the most commonly cited in April to June 2016 (as in previous quarters). No exemptions other than section 40 were cited in more than 15% of exempted requests.
So what do these figures show?
The figures appear to show that the system is working well overall although there appears to be scope for improving the timeliness of responses. However, there are wide variations between departments; for example BIS Home Office met the 20-day response deadline in only 56% of cases while the Department of Health had a 99% response rate.
It is difficult to know whether these statistics paint a true picture of the situation. As the report admits, there is considerable variation in how governmental bodies are structured and managed and in the mechanisms they have put in place to meet their obligations under FOIA. Some bodies apparently operate a centralised Freedom of Information secretariat that co-ordinates responses to all information requests that are received whereas others give a greater degree of autonomy to individual work areas in the handling of information requests. As a consequence of these differences, the report notes that there could be a degree of inconsistency in the way in which bodies have interpreted and applied the definition of an “information request” for monitoring purposes. However, what is apparent is that the statistics effectively count those requests that have been dealt with by each monitored body formally under FOIA.