Information Commissioner to prioritise FOI complaints with “significant public interest”
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has announced a “new approach” to prioritise complaints made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) where there is “significant public interest”.
The ICO said the public interest criteria has now been “clarified and refined”. It said: “The new criteria provides clear guidance and expectations about what constitutes significant public interest – for example, if the issue is likely to involve large amounts of public money, or the information may significantly impact vulnerable groups”.
The new prioritisation framework will ensure that complaints where there is significant public interest in the information requested will now be dealt with “quicker than previously”, the ICO announced.
The ICO will aim to allocate priority cases within four weeks and fast-track 15-20% of its caseload.
It will also close 90% of all the cases it receives within six months (up from its previous target of 80%). The criteria will be kept under review and cover complaints made under both FOIA and the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR).
The ICO said that for the past year, it has “streamlined its processes to better handle the volume and complexity of FOI complaints it receives”, so it can do more regulatory activity targeted at public authorities that are “failing systemically to meet their transparency obligations”.
In November 2022, the ICO launched a consultation on its proposed framework to prioritise certain complaints while also delivering a swifter response than ever to all incoming cases. The proposal recognised that FOI law is “essential to a functioning democracy” and that delays in the current system were “undermining its effectiveness”.
John Edwards, UK Information Commissioner
John Edwards, UK Information Commissioner, said: “At the ICO we, like many public bodies, continue to face the long-term challenge of doing more with less in real terms. That is why we have been looking at ways to improve our FOI services, including making better choices to ensure we are delivering timely outcomes – such as prioritising issues that will have the greatest impact.
“Timeliness is everything in access to information, so we need the support from public authorities to ensure people are receiving timely responses. We will be doing our part by adding pace to our work, but we need commitment from senior leaders across public authorities to drive FOI compliance within their organisations, investing time and resources where needed to ensure people are receiving clarity about what information they are entitled to within the legal timeframe.”
Introducing prioritisation is one of “several recent improvements” to the ICO’s regulation of the FOI Act.
Edwards added: “Prioritisation will sit at the heart of our new operating model which is designed to stand up to the rigours of the modern world. With these improvements to our FOI services, we are delivering one of the first outcomes of ICO25, our strategic three-year vision, and marking a real step-change in the efficiency of FOI law and the transparency it can bring.”
Last week, the ICO issued its second FOI enforcement notice since the launch of its new FOI Regulatory Manual last year. The notice requires Lewisham Council to respond to hundreds of overdue requests for information.
It said it is taking “more proactive action” against public authorities that are “systemically failing to comply with the law”.
The ICO revealed that over the last 12 months, it has reduced its caseload of 2,295 live complaints by almost two-thirds and delivered more than 2,500 decision notices.