Wednesday, August 21, 2013

73 days and counting - the frustrations of the Freedom of Information Act

The law is quite clear: public bodies must respond within 20 working days to a request for information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Despite this, I've been waiting 73 working days for a response to a fairly straightforward request sent to the Crown Prosecution Service on May 10.

What makes me say my request was straightforward?  I asked for information that the CPS stated publicly it had been collating centrally.

I sent my request by email on Friday May 10.  

I heard nothing until July 5, 30 working days later, when I received the following note:

"I am writing to apologise that your request dated 10 May seems to have been overlooked in our mailbox.  Please can you confirm whether you are still interested in the information requested?  If you are I will aim to progress a response to your request as soon as possible."

Encouraged by the apology

I responded on the same day to say that I did indeed still want the information.  At that point, I took the view that the delay was due to a simple oversight.  Human error.  We all make them.  I was encouraged by the apology and the statement that if I still wanted the information the CPS would 'aim to progress a response to (my) request as soon as possible.'

Hmmm ...

Having heard nothing by July 31, I sent another email:

"You said you would aim to progress my request as 'soon as possible' - it is now 18 working days since this exchange - and more than 55 since my original request.  Please could you update me on your response?"
The response on August 5 was not encouraging:
"I am sorry that I have still been unable to provide you with a response to your request.  I have read your email today after returning from a short period of leave.  
I thought I should briefly confirm that my email of 5th July was to inform you that unfortunately our Department had not actioned your request at all up until this date, because it had been missed.  
As soon as you confirmed, on the same date, that you were still interested in the information requested we started processing it.  
Within the last 20 days please be assured that this has been receiving our attention.  
Having made further enquiries today I am still unable to give you a precise date of when we will be able to respond but as soon as I have an update I will let you know.  
Thank you for your continued patience."

Formal complaint to the Information Commissioner 

 To be honest, my patience was running out.  My request related to something in the news and the delays simply meant that the news was moving on - this is perhaps the most frustrating thing for journalists using the FoIA: information often takes so long to arrive that its impact is lessened.

At this point (August 6), I also sent a complaint to the Information Commissioner: the public official charged with overseeing the FoIA.  I received an automated response ... and nothing since.

So today, I wrote again to the CPS and got an immediate response:

"Sorry for the continued delay.  We have scheduled a further meeting to discuss the request later today.  I would hope that we should be in a position to respond in the first week of September, or possibly by the latter part of next week."
A further meeting?  Clearly the CPS doesn't think my request is as straightforward as I do.

The first week of September? More than 80 days since my original request.

Should I hold my breath?  Any advice on next steps gratefully accepted.

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