A Times leader today calls for Information Commissioner Richard Thomas “issue some boldly liberal judgments” on appeals under the Freedom of Information Act.
As we report today, three quarters of the appeals lodged since January against refusals to provide information remain unresolved, with staff at the Information Commissioner’s office admitting that all they can do for impatient complainants is apologise.
There are structural reasons for the backlog that can be easily addressed. An increasing proportion of appeals comes from businesses seeking information for purely commercial reasons. These were anticipated; the resources so far earmarked to handle them are simply inadequate. At the same time, Richard Thomas, the commissioner, is having to cope with private appeals triggered by a surge of requests that peaked earlier this year but is now receding.
Mr Thomas’s most serious challenge by far is not logistical, but cultural. Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Constitutional Affairs Secretary, has called the Act “a bold and determined response to generations of secrecy” — and no one seriously expected that secrecy would evaporate overnight. What is alarming, though hardly surprising to sceptics, is the speed with which the instinct to resist disclosure has embedded itself in the apparatus of enforcement. The Orwellian-sounding Central Clearing House, which handles information requests containing “trigger” words such as “Prime Minister” and “diaries”, has assumed the de facto role of blocking the release of information. In an extraordinary lapse, it has even put this role in writing in a memo stating that the stock answer to supposedly sensitive requests should be “withhold”.