By law, a public authority usually has to respond to a request made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 promptly, and within 20 working days. However, there are instances when this deadline may be extended.
This usually happens when the authority needs to conduct a public interest test to determine whether it’s in the public interest to apply one of the many exemptions in the Act, or whether they should release the information.
We’ve observed a recurring trend where the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has been frequently extending the response deadline to consider the public interest. This has resulted in significant delays in the provision of responses.
We’ve tracked 35 requests where the FCDO has taken over 100 days to respond. Here are four of the most notable delays that we’ve come across:
- This request for briefing notes prepared for then Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2013 trip to China is still unanswered after more than 430 working days and 21 Public Interest extensions.
- A request concerning UK-AIS commercial deals took 388 working days to answer.
- In another case, 274 working days after the requester asked for the information, the department sent them a letter giving them just seven days to respond if they still wanted their request to be processed.
- A request about various projects in Turkey took 239 working days to be answered.
While the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) suggests that the process of considering the public interest shouldn’t typically take more than an additional 20 working days, the law itself doesn’t set a time limit, which restricts the options available to requesters to challenge this practice.The situation is better if you have asked for information from a Scottish public authority, as these requests are handled under different legislation. The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act does not allow for additional time to be taken when assessing the public interest in releasing information, which means that Scottish public authorities must do so within the original 20-working-day timeframe. The Independent Commission on Freedom of Information that the Public Interest Test extension be abolished, and replaced with a time limited extension that covered requests that were complex to handle, a call which we echoed.
If you find that an authority has sought to extend the response deadline for one of your requests multiple times, we would strongly recommend that you lodge a complaint with the ICO. This is quick and easy to do using their online complaint form. They will typically write to the authority, asking them to respond to your request within 10 working days. You can find examples on WhatDoTheyKnow where requesters have successfully done this. Although the ICO is continuing to work through a large casework backlog, our experience is that they usually handle complaints of this nature promptly.
We are continuing to collect examples of delays caused by authorities conducting public interest tests. If you know of any that we’ve missed, please contact us and let us know, especially if you have personal experiences to share.
Image: Lucian Alexe