Non confrontational Information Commissioner vows to get tough

Out-Law News | 29 Jun 2006 | 7:31 am | 1 min. read

The Information Commissioner will be more aggressive with public authorities who delay freedom of information requests, he has told Parliament. The Commissioner, Richard Thomas, said that after a lenient first year it was time to get tough.

Thomas was giving evidence to a constitutional affairs select committee of Parliament earlier this year, when he conceded that his office had not been as forceful in ensuring requests were fulfilled as it could have been.

"We saw the first year as a learning year for ourselves as an organisation and also for public bodies generally and we tried to be reasonably tolerant, reasonably non-confrontational trying to help public authorities get it right," he said in his evidence.

"We have resolved that we must be considerably tougher in some respects as we go into the second and third year. We have already started to show some signs of how we can be tougher using the range of tools at our disposal," said Thomas.

The Committee's report, which has just been released, details criticisms from witnesses of the Commissioner's office over delays in having FOI requests fulfilled. "Long delays in accessing information or having complaints resolved go against both the spirit and the letter of the Act, and must be resolved," said Committee chairman Alan Bleith MP. "Records management, and particularly digital records management, must be improved."

The Committee also proposes putting the Commissioner's office (ICO) under the direct control of Parliament, taking it out of the control of the Department of Constitutional Affairs. "The Committee is not convinced the relationship between DCA and the ICO is working effectively," said a Committee statement. "It recommends that the Government consider making the Information Commissioner directly accountable to, and funded by, Parliament."

The Committee's report also revealed that the ICO, faced with a backlog of cases, applied for £1.13 million in additional funding at the end of 2005 and again in January 2006. The DCA eventually provided £550,000 in extra funding, but only on a once off basis. The Committee believes that it is not enough.

"We are surprised that the need for additional resources was not identified earlier in 2005, before the backlog became such a problem," said the Committee's report. "We are not convinced that adequate resources have been allocated to resolve the problem, or that they were allocated early enough."

The Committee strongly supported Thomas's assertion that his office would adopt a more forceful approach to its work. "We support the Commissioner's decision to adopt a firmer approach to enforcement," said the report. "We expect to see him use his full range of powers to improve compliance and reduce the delays being experienced by requesters."