PETER Robinson and Martin McGuinness have blamed their officials for an “oversight” that has left their department facing unprecedented legal action for ignoring a Freedom of Information request.
On Monday, the News Letter revealed that retired civil servant Jeffrey Dudgeon has applied for leave to judicially review the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) after it failed to respond to his FoI request after more than 300 days – far beyond the legal 20-day limit.
Of all 12 Stormont departments, OFMDFM has by far the worst record of answering requests made under the transparency law, with more than half of requests now not being answered within the legal time limit.
The News Letter first contacted OFMDFM about the case on Friday. Yesterday it responded with a statement which said: “Due to an oversight on behalf of departmental officials, ministers and their ministerial offices were not informed of this Freedom of Information request. A senior official will ensure procedures are put in place to prevent such a delay occurring in the future. Ministers will consider this request and issue a response shortly.”
However, although Mr Dudgeon is the first to take the department to court over a massive delay in answering an FoI request, chronic delays in answering FoI requests at the department are now common.
OFMDFM’s own annual report into FoI shows that despite only receiving 168 requests (only DoJ and DETI received fewer requests) it answered just 41 per cent within the legal time limit.
Yesterday the body which polices the Freedom of Information Act has said that if a public body responds to less than 85 per cent of requests within 20 working days or have a number of FoI requests that have gone significantly over the time limit it will monitor that body’s compliance with the law.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said that it will decide before the end of this year on its list of public authorities for monitoring over the next year.
The ICO also said that even in complex cases where a department needs time to consider whether the public interest would be served by releasing the information, it should respond within 40 working days.
The ICO said that it had “a range of powers available to use if an authority routinely fails to comply”.
However, there have been problems with the time in which the ICO takes to process appeals against departments who either refuse to release information or flout the law by ignoring requests.
The ICO said that 40 per cent of the 4,763 FoI complaints to it in the last year had been resolved within 30 days.
The fact that Mr Dudgeon has taken his case to court after feeling that the ICO did not provide an adequate remedy is embarrassing for the watchdog.
The statement added: “We would advise any individuals who have exhausted a public authority’s review process, or who have not received a response from an authority in legally acceptable time frame, to bring their complaint to our office.”