ICO and the pre-pandemic delays

The latest performance data issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office confirms how the ICO was falling behind on dealing with FOI cases before the pandemic.

Yesterday the ICO released a new batch in its ‘proactive disclosure’ of monthly complaints data. This is somewhat old given it covers a period two years ago, from April to August 2019, but it does show how its record on processing FOI and EIR casework was deteriorating even before the disruption caused by Covid.

The average time taken on a case closed in this period which involved a decision notice was 176 days. Comparing this to the same 5-month timeframe in previous years where data is still available gives the following, according to my calculations based on the ICO datasets:

Average time taken to close FOI/EIR cases which involve decision notices:

Apr-Aug 2014: 142 days
Apr-Aug 2015: 122 days
Apr-Aug 2016: 141 days
Apr-Aug 2017: 158 days
Apr-Aug 2018: 159 days
Apr-Aug 2019: 176 days

Analysing the monthly complaints data demonstrates a disturbing pattern of increasing delay over these years.

From around 2017 the ICO started to deal more quickly with simple cases it could reject easily on procedural grounds (eg because the complainant failed to ask the public authority involved for an internal review before approaching the ICO). But the delays have got even longer for complaints which go to a formal ICO decision notice – and these would include the significant cases that really matter.

Since the pandemic took hold matters have of course got worse, as was revealed in data obtained by the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

There’s also a very useful analysis of numerous aspects of ICO operational data in this report by the researcher Lucas Amin for the campaign group openDemocracy.

The latest ICO annual report said: “There will be a focus on these matters as lockdown restrictions are lifted to be able to progress the oldest cases as soon as possible, nonetheless, there is an obvious effect on both those cases over 12 months old as well as the age profile generally. It is anticipated that this will be rectified in the medium term.”

What constitutes “the medium term” is not clear.

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Rural Payments Agency failings

The Rural Payments Agency fails to deal with most information requests it receives within the legal time limits, according to the latest set of FOI statistics published today.

The RPA, which issues subsidy payments to farmers in England, managed to meet the legal deadline in only 47 per cent of cases in the first quarter of 2021, the period covered by these figures. This was by far the worst record of delay among the departments and agencies monitored in these statistics – and continues a pattern of the RPA’s comparative poor performance.

The government department with the worst record of delay was DCMS.

Generally there was a 10 per cent increase in the number of FOI requests to the UK government departments and agencies monitored compared to the same period last year, after drops in the intervening months doubtless linked to the pandemic.

Organisations which have received significantly more requests include the Department of Health and Social Care (hardly surprisingly), the Charity Commission and the Office for National Statistics.

The longer term overall picture, as seen in my chart, is that the level of FOI requests to government departments increased steadily after FOI came into force in 2005 until it peaked in 2013, since when there has been a slightly bumpy plateau. (The chart is adjusted to reflect the fact that the first quarter of each year tends to see the most requests).

Chart showing FOI requests to UK government departments since 2005

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