A Stormont department is facing unprecedented action after it failed to respond to a Freedom of Information request for more than three and a half years.
The Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) has been served with an Enforcement Notice by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) after repeatedly failing to respond to numerous requests for information – one of which goes back to September 2011.
It is the first time that such an enforcement step has been taken in Northern Ireland.
Serving an enforcement notice is an exceptional measure which is believed to only have been used on two other occasions in more than a decade of the UK’s Freedom of Information Act.
One of those occasions was when the ICO ordered the release of some information surrounding the Attorney General’s legal advice on going to war with Iraq in 2003.
The ICO said that it had been in contact with DFP about “the timeliness of its responses” for more than a year but that four requests remain unanswered, with DFP failing to even formally write to the applicants with a refusal.
DFP had already been placed under formal monitoring – itself a highly unusual step – due to its poor record in responding to some Freedom of Information requests.
The Enforcement Notice gives the department 30 days to respond to the requests. If it does not do so, the commissioner can then take the issue to the High Court.
The Freedom of Information Act compels public bodies to comply with requests “promptly and in any event not later than the 20th working day following receipt”.
But it has still not responded to two requests from 2011 – one relating to disciplinary action taken against a senior member of staff, and another which asked for information about EU-funded organisations reported to the police.