The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has launched a consultation on how it prioritises the complaints it receives about public bodies’ handling of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.
Limited funding, an increase in FOI cases brought to the ICO and an increased need to support stretched public authorities have created ‘a perfect storm’. The ICO is therefore looking at ways to improve its FOI casework services to make information rights work more effectively.
The proposal is to prioritise complaints where there is a clear public interest in the information that has been asked for. Public interest covers a wide range of values and principles relating to the public good, or what is in the best interests of society.
New criteria for prioritisation are set out in the consultation, including applying the following tests:
- Is there a high public interest in the information requested? Does it raise a novel or clearly high-profile issue that we should look at quickly?
- Is the requester a person or group who is raising information rights awareness, supporting vulnerable groups or raising awareness of potentially significant public interest issues?
- Are vulnerable groups or people potentially significantly affected by the information requested?
- Would prioritisation have significant operational benefits or support those regulated?
The present system means cases are taking a long time to complete, which ultimately hinders the delivery of effective transparency and open government. The proposed changes mean the ICO will aim to allocate priority cases within four weeks and complete them at pace. We will complete 90% of all cases within six months.
This work is one of the first outcomes of ICO25, the ICO’s three-year strategic vision, which sets out how the ICO will regulate information rights as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Warren Seddon, ICO Director of FOI and Transparency, said:
“This is about promoting openness, transparency and accountability in line with ICO25, our new corporate strategy. Expediting cases where there is a clear potential public interest means people will get quicker access to information when they are entitled to it or a clear explanation when they are not.
“With an increased demand for our FOI services in recent years, coupled with limited funding, we need to make better choices about how we allocate our resources to those issues that will have the highest impact."
Prioritisation does not mean that the ICO will predetermine the outcome of a case. We may uphold the complaint or we may not. Where possible, we will resolve a case based on the information available to us when we receive it, either through a decision notice or dispute resolution. This will provide regulatory certainty to the requester about our decision as quickly as possible. They or the public authority can then move forward as they wish to access other remedies, including to the tribunal.
The new prioritisation criteria will cover complaints made under both the FOI Act and the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR).
The proposal is a mitigation of issues in the current system, whilst the ICO works to tackle the backlog, bring response times down and improve performance of public authorities.
The ICO is keen to hear a range of views, including those from members of the public requesting information, journalists, public authorities and civil society.
Please submit responses through the ICO website by 20 December 2022.
Notes to Editors
- The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is the UK’s independent regulator for data protection and information rights law, upholding information rights in the public interest, promoting openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals. It has its head office in Wilmslow, Cheshire, and regional offices in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.
- The ICO has specific responsibilities out in the Data Protection Act 2018 (DPA2018), the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA), Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR), Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 (PECR) and a further five Acts / Regulations.
- The Scottish Information Commissioner regulates Scottish Freedom of Information law that applies to Scottish public authorities and other bodies.
- The ICO provides guidance to help people make FOI requests and resolves over 6,000 FOI complaints every year, ordering public authorities to release information where necessary.
- The ICO defines the public interest as covering a range of values and principles relating to the public good, or what is in the best interests of society. Public interest can take many forms. For example, there is a public interest in:
- transparency and accountability, to promote public understanding and to safeguard democratic processes,
- good decision-making by public bodies,
- upholding standards of integrity,
- ensuring justice and fair treatment for all,
- securing the best use of public resources, and
- ensuring fair commercial competition in a mixed economy.