Journalist's FOI request about himself in Tribunal's hands

A journalist’s Freedom of Information request about the handling of his own previous requests is to be decided by the Information Tribunal after Government ministers blocked it.

Matt Davis of Brighton-based John Connor Press Associates filed the request with the Home Office, seeking any internal correspondence about his previous requests.

‘I have long suspected that the Home Office have been dealing with me – because I use the Act on a large scale – differently than general members of the public,’said Davis.

Davis said his concerns were raised in 2006 when he and a colleague based in Australia submitted identical requests to the Home Office about compensation payments made to prisoners – and received different responses.

‘I suspect that somewhere, someone has said ‘if you get a request from John Connor Press Associates, put it in the slow tray’, or something like that,’said Davis.

‘I believe that my requests are being red-flagged, and they shouldn’t be because requests under FoI are applicant blind, so it shouldn’t matter if it’s me, David Cameron, Tony Blair or whoever that’s asking the question – they should be treated exactly the same.”

Davis’s request about himself was denied in February 2007, when Home Office minister Gerry Sutcliffe invoked the exemption in section 36 for the FoI Act, arguing that disclosing the information would prejudice the department’s ability to handle complaints about FoI cases. Following an internal review, that decision was confirmed by another Home Office minister,Vernon Coaker.

On appeal, however, the Information Commissioner rejected that argument and ordered the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to disclose the material.

Following a government reshuffle in May 2007, some of the information became part of the new Ministry of Justice.

Both departments are now appealing the Information Commissioner’s decision to the Information Tribunal.

The Information Commissioner has until 20 August to respond to the appeal.

In 2005, Davis became the first journalist to take an FoI case to the Tribunal when he attempted to force the National Maritime Museum to reveal how much it had paid artist Conrad Shawcross was paid for a temporary installation.

The backlog of Freedom of Information appeals being considered by the Information Commissioner’s Office was reduced by just 42 cases in the first half of 2008.

New figures show the ICO had 1,304 cases outstanding this June – a decline of just 42 cases since December 2007, when Press Gazette reported that the ICO caseload had reached 1,346.

The cases currently being considered by the ICO include one appeal against Leeds City Council that submitted just under three months after the Act came into force in January 2005.

The new figures were revealed last month on WhatDoTheyKnow, the website set up by mySociety to facilitate making and tracking requests under the Freedom of Information Act, following a request by Alex Skene, a user of the site.

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