'DELAY IN REPLYING TO DATA REQUESTS CRITICISED'

By Bob Sherwood

Financial Times – 2 February 2005

The Freedom of Information regime came under attack yesterday as the deadline for the first data requests passed with relatively few questions being answered. Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, predicted last week that there would be "significant disclosures" as government departments ran out of time on handling the earliest requests under the new legislation. But the Conservatives said hardly any of their requests had generated answers and accused the government of providing "rubbish".

Under the Act, which came into force on January 1, public bodies have 20 working days to answer information demands from the public, media or other organisations, with some exemptions. For the first requests submitted, that deadline has expired.

Julian Lewis, shadow Cabinet Office minister, said the Tories – one of the biggest users of the legislation so far – had heard nothing back on most of their 130-plus requests. He told BBC radio:

"I wouldn't mind them taking more than 20 days if they were going to give us something worth hearing. Unfortunately, we know from Parliament that they take it to the wire and give us rubbish at the end."

Central government has received about 4,000 FOI requests, according to figures released yesterday. Lord Falconer, who oversees the system, said "a huge amount of information has been released" across 100,000 public bodies. But he insisted:

"This is not a free-for-all. There will always be areas ... where it is necessary for information to be withheld."

He had predicted there would be many refusals in the early days of the regime as people struggled with the exemptions.

The Financial Times has received a string of refusals from government departments, with some insisting it would take them longer than 3 1/2-man days to locate the information requested and so they were "not obliged under (the act) to comply". The Foreign Office has insisted it must "extend the time limit by approximately 10 days" to consider exemptions covering an inquiry on the EU referendum.

In a response to a request relating to Lord Birt's proposals to reduce the size of the Treasury, a Cabinet Office official not only refused to hand over the information but wrote:

"I am unable to confirm or deny whether the Cabinet Office holds the information you seek."

Asked about the Education Secretary's meetings in relation to identity cards, the Department for Education and Skills came up only with the date of a Home Affairs Select Committee session.

The Press Association, the news wire service, accused the Home Office of breaching the rules of the Act by failing to reply to applications. It said four out of the eight requests it submitted as soon as the Act came into force had not been answered within the deadline.