Department for Education warned about FoI response times despite ‘improvements’

The Department for Education (DfE) has been warned about its response times to Freedom of Information requests after it was monitored by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The commissioner’s office kept an eye on the DfE for three months from January and it was subsequently sent a letter about the number of outstanding responses that had gone “significantly” past the 20 working day statutory time limit.

It had come in for monitoring along with a number of other government bodies at local, devolved and national levels.

The authorities were selected as, according to the commissioners’ office, they had failed to respond to 85 per cent of requests within the time limit of 20 working days or had exceeded the time limit by a significant margin on numerous occasions.

Commissioner Christopher Graham said at the time: “We will monitor the authorities named today for three months, and may take further action after this monitoring period has expired if we don’t see the necessary improvements in each authorities’ standard of compliance.

“It is particularly disappointing to see that the advances previously made by the Department for Education — which were introduced following concerns after previous rounds of monitoring — have not been continued.

“This is not good enough and we expect these authorities to take the necessary measures to ensure that they are meeting their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act. We will provide support and advice where we can, but reserve the right to take further action if they fail to step up to the mark.”

However, a spokesperson for the commissioner said the DfE had “improved the timeliness of their responses over the monitoring period”.

They added that the DfE had received a follow-up letter and that, “we have now reviewed the response received to the letter and are satisfied the DfE has taken sufficient action to ensure the backlog is addressed”.

A DfE spokesperson said: “We take our responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act extremely seriously and we are pleased that the Information Commissioner’s Office is satisfied with our progress.”

Government figures show that the DfE fielded 476 request under the Freedom of Information Act while it was being monitored, of which 87 per cent were processed within the 20-day deadline. During the same period, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills fielded 227, processing 90 per cent in time. Among all departments of state there were 9,312 requests, of which 83 per cent were processed in time.

In the six months since the DfE was monitored, half a dozen other authorities have been watched by the commissioner’s office over concerns about their responses to Freedom of Information requests. They include the Metropolitan Police Service and Manchester City Council, and more recently the Home Office and Sussex Police. The results of monitoring from April are yet to be announced.