Freedom of information can be inconvenient - for the government

New figures reveal that the chances of getting an answer under the new right-to-know law depend on which government department deals with the request, reports Robert Verkaik, Law Editor of the Independent.

Gordon Brown said in his speech on liberty last October that "Freedom of Information can be inconvenient, at times frustrating and indeed embarrassing for governments. But Freedom of Information is the right course because government belongs to the people, not the politicians."

This week the Ministry of Justice published its annual report on the workings of the Act for last year. It showed that central government received 16,903 requests and that a similar number were dealt with by public bodies.

Of greater significance was the figures for the success rates of requests made to government. These showed that across all departments last year, a third of requests were rejected in part or in full. The department with the worst record was the office of the Attorney General, where only 23 per cent of demands for information were met in full, while the best performer was the Department of Work and Pensions which answered nearly 90 per cent.

What this annual report does not tell us is what the satisfaction rate was among those members of the public who were told their request was unresolvable or even for those whose requests are said to have been granted in full.

The bitter experience for many who use the legislation is that the process rarely ends in complete satisfaction. This is partly because of the time taken to respond to requests. This week's report revealed that 16 per cent – more than 5,000 requests – were taking more than the stipulated 20 days to process that is required by the Act. And of the 620 requests which went to internal review within the departments, 19 per cent took more than 60 days to process.

Freedom Of Information: A third of all Freedom of Information requests rejected (The Independent, 20 June 2008)