UK Information Commissioner struggling with large backlog of appeals

The Times reports that the operation of the Freedom of Information Act is encountering severe difficulties because of a large backlog of appeals against Government departments.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is struggling to cope with over 1,200 unresolved cases. More than half of those appeals have not yet been allocated to a caseworker and some cases have been with the Commissioner for three months without any action being taken. The large number of appeals to the ICO is partly due to the work of the Central Clearing House in Whitehall which told civil servants that they could chose to “neither confirm nor deny” whether their departments even hold information that has been requested by the public.

The Commissioner’s office has received 1,642 appeals in the past six months and the number is growing at a rate of five a day. There are 28 full-time and five part-time staff handling the cases. Final judgments have been reached in less than 50 cases and another 380 have been withdrawn or resolved. A member of the ICO's staff commented: “All we can do at the moment is apologise to people.”

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said there was “a gigantic backlog” at the Commissioner’s office: “When you look at the figures they have only made final decisions in 50 cases.”

UK Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, acknowledged that there has been a significant challenge to the ICO as the regulator of the FOI legislation: "In common with other FoI jurisdictions there have been some early backlogs of work. However, we are confident that in the light of experience we can streamline case handling procedures and also that the familiarity of case officers with the issues raised by complainants will reduce the time spent on individual cases.”

Government's secrecy culture blocks freedom of information (The Times, 30 September 2005)