Department for Education faces scrutiny after responding late to one in five FOI requests

The Department of Education continues to perform poorly in responding to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, according to recently published figures.

The figures, published by the Ministry of Justice, show the department responded late to 21% of the requests they received last year.

In total 1,309 requests for information were received by the deparment throughout the year. 269 of those received a response later than the 20 working day limit outlined by the FOI act. A further 31 are yet to be resolved.

The key points are:

  • 1,309 requests were received.
  • Of these 1,038 requests were “resolvable” – 686 were given the information they asked for in full, 139 were partially withheld, 182 were fully withheld.
  • 269 requests were responded to late – and 31 are still outstanding.
  • 57 internal reviews were asked for following refusal, of these two were overturned.
  • 30 appeals were made to the Information Commissioner. Of 12 outcomes known the Information Commissioner overturned zero of these appeals.

In the final quarter of the year the Department for Education did improve the number of requests it was late in responding to (56), compared to the previous quarter (86).

The poor performance had not gone unnoticed, however, as the number of late responses in the third quarter of last year resulted in the Information Commissioner deciding to monitor Michael Gove’s department for the first three months of 2013.

The monitoring period ended at the beginning of April and the results are to be announced shortly.

Mr Gove’s department faced several high profile Freedom of Information cases during the previous 12 months including a fight to block the publication of emails sent by ministers from their private email accounts.

Legal action a possibility 

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has called for the Information Commissioner to take action against public authorities who do not follow their FOI obligations under the law – including those who, like the Department for Education, fail to respond to requests in a timely manner.

Maurice Frankel, the Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information said:

He [the Information Commissioner] could prevent this happening, by serving legally binding enforcement notices on the authorities which show such obvious lack of enthusiasm for answering requests. But he has kept these powers in reserve for so long that most departments must now assume they will never be used, however feebly they perform.”  

With the Department for Education’s scrutiny report being prepared, if no improvement has been made that legal action will be taken. The Independent has already reported from a senior Whitehall source that the improvement has been “borderline”.

In response to enquiries by HMI Education the Information Commissioner’s Office would add nothing to the recently published government figures, but did say they would be publishing the Department for Education’s back to school report soon.

A spokesperson said:

“We will also be announcing the results of the last monitoring period in the coming weeks.”

How requests were refused 

110 requests were fully refused due to an exemption being in place and 72 requests were refused due to them being over the cost limit allowed by the Act.

There were a total of 344 exemptions applied to 249 requests. The most common exemptions applied were:

  • Section 36 – Prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs – 90 applications
  • Section 40 – Personal information – 79 applications
  • Section 22 – Information intended for future publication – 53 applications
  • Section 35 – Formulation of Government policy – 50 applications
  • Section 43 – Commercial interests – 46 applications.

 

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