Are you interested in Parliamentary blood sports? This happens when a hapless witness is given the “once-over” by a Select Committee seeking answers to basic questions. If the answer is “yes”, put Tuesday 5 January (4.45pm) down in your diary; the Information Commissioner is giving evidence before the Justice Committee on “the Operation of the Ministerial FOI veto (Cabinet Minutes) and FOI caseload”.
Last Monday, my favourite digital channel featured a thirty minute adjournment debate at midnight. It was instigated by Gordon Prentice MP about his FOI request which appears to have taken over two years to resolve (Decision Notice still not issued). The MP was ranting and raving to an empty House of Commons except for the Minister and the Chair of the Justice Committee (Alan Beith MP) who was in attendance, listening intently.
Mr Prentice informed Parliament that “the Information Commissioner's office has a huge backlog of hundreds of cases, which go back to 2005”. He had received a copy of the "case-load snapshot" that the Information Commissioner issued: this runs “to about 30 closely typed pages, and about 30 to 40 cases are listed on each page. Prentice claimed that “the system is just gumming up”. It will come as no surprise that the MP complained that his own request was one of those that were gummed up.
The Commissioner's attempt to calm the situation backfired. Possibly being alerted to the adjournment debate, he had hastily despatched an apologetic “I-am-eating-a-lot-of-humble-pie” letter whose other message can be summarised as: “We are now getting our finger out and will let you know by the end of January when we have investigated”. This was dismissed by Prentice with the comment: “After 20 months, he is seeking further information” and the conclusion that the “Commissioner’s office is simply not coping”.
This means that the MPs on the Justice Committee will want to find out whether this experience is a common one – and believe me, this consideration will be informed by the many MPs who have experienced the FOI regime as requestors. That collective experience could result in another hard time from another Select Committee (see the blog of 15/09/2009: “Information Commissioner wrong to blame Parliament and the Courts”)
I think the Commissioner has two choices in January? He can argue that his office will be able to cope and the FOI system is not gummed up. As evidence, he can point to the facts published in his last Annual Report: namely that freedom of information appeals are up by 29 per cent, and that he is closing cases at a faster rate and the reduction in the backlog of cases. However, I think the more statistics like this he quotes, the more popular he makes the FOI regime, the more the impression he will give that he is swimming hard against an incoming tide of requestors without the necessary resources.
The second choice is for Commissioner to point to the fact that his office is constrained by Ministry of Justice (MoJ) control of the purse strings. He could say that the extra 10% of funding for FOI (£500,000) offered by the MoJ this year does not resolve the resourcing issues. He could also say that relying on help from the MoJ (e.g. the use of seconded civil servants by the Commissioner) presents a potential conflict of interest, in that when these civil servants return to their Departments, they are returning to public authorities against whom the Commissioner might take action.
In other words, the Commissioner has the chance to "cry freedom". He can argue that his office should report to, and be funded by, Parliament instead of being shackled to the paltry resources proffered by the Government of the day.
I will be watching to see whether he takes or misses that opportunity.
Reference: 14 Dec 2009 : Column 774 : Freedom of Information Requests. We are holding a number of FOI courses in Leeds, Manchester and London next year - details on http://www.amberhawk.com/brochures.asp