UK Information Commissioner under-resourced

Britain's FoI laws are being threatened by a backlog of more than 1,000 complaints brought by dissatisfied members of the public, some of which are taking almost two years to clear. Many concern government departments which have refused to disclose documents about ministers' meetings or sensitive and embarrassing correspondence within Whitehall.

The Information Commissioner, who has the power to order ministers and public bodies to disclose this information, has now written to members of the public apologising that their complaints have not been allocated a case officer. In letters received last month, the Commissioner describes the backlog which has been built up since the Freedom of Information Act went live in January 2005 as "substantial".

Of the 5,000 complaints received by the watchdog, 1,371 have yet to be resolved and include 613 still awaiting allocation to a case officer. Latest figures reveal that 19 of the most difficult and controversial cases relate to requests for sensitive information from the government made more than two years ago. A further 49 are over a year old. Last year, the total caseload of unresolved complaints stood at 1,245.

Campaigners are concerned that by the time these complaints are settled, the information requested will be out of date or of little interest to the person who originally requested it. "In some cases the information will be too late to be useful, which is potentially quite serious for the legislation, because it may be putting people off using the Act," says Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

MPs say that by deliberately starving the Information Commissioner of funds the Government is helping to take the sting out of troublesome requests that it might have to comply with when the Information Commissioner finally rules on them. The chronic lack of funds has forced Mr Thomas to prioritise his existing resources so that more straightforward cases are settled as quickly as possible while the more awkward requests, usually relating to government departments, are put in the difficult pile where they wait longer to be resolved.

Freedom of Information: Under-resourced watchdog swamped by complaints - Refusals by government departments to disclose sensitive information have generated a backlog of complaints (The Independent, 19 October 2007)