Delays frustrate the FoI process

“Please accept my apologies for the delay.”…“Unfortunately, I have been off for most of this week due to illness.”…“I hope that we will be in a position to respond by the end of next week.”…“I have been on leave.”…“The response is still being finalised.”

The Economist reports: "If waiting for a bus is frustrating, prising information out of Transport for London (TfL), the body that runs public transport in the capital, is worse. In November and December 2007, The Economist applied to see two TfL reports on the London congestion charge. There followed a delay worthy of the Northern Line: 18 e-mails gave nine different reasons for missed deadlines; it was two months before a response arrived, in the negative, and three more before an internal review confirmed that refusal."

Non-compliance is endemic - and part of the reason public authorities can get away with it is because the commissioner’s office (ICO) is itself slow in pursuing complaints.

The Economist's case with TfL was referred to the ICO last April but the matter is still being pondered: "Mr Thomas says that about half his cases are dealt with in 30 days, but nearly a third take more than a year. A staff of just 53 has handled some 9,000 cases since the act came in. Its £5.5m budget will be no higher this year (and may even be cut), despite a projected 15% rise in the caseload."

The ICO funds come from the Ministry of Justice, which also advises the rest of Whitehall on how to deal with awkward requests, a “slightly uncomfortable situation” according to Mr Thomas. He would rather be funded directly by Parliament, like his Scottish counterpart, Kevin Dunion, who enjoys a proportionally bigger budget.

* Four years on - has freedom of information made a difference to the culture of secrecy it was meant to displace? Or is it a waste of taxpayers money? Have your say - post your comment below.

Free-ish: Four years on, the Freedom of Information Act is popular but underfunded (The Economist, 15 January 2009)