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  1. Media Law
June 23, 2008

Number of FOI complaints upheld prompt bias fear

By James Ball

Fewer than one in 20 complaints made to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) about central Government departments led to a formal ruling to disclose information under the Freedom of Information Act.

This was one finding of Press Gazette research into complaints made about Freedom of Information requests to central Government departments.

The Home Office and Ministry of Justice, which were responsible for introducing the Act, received more complaints than any other department, getting 155 and 148 complaints respectively. The Department for Transport had the highest proportion of formal decision notices issued against it, at 8.7 per cent.

The ICO handles complaints from the public on how well public bodies handle requests made under the Freedom of Information Act, and has powers to force public authorities to disclose information. However, it has only issued formal notices on 4.4 per cent of complaints against central bodies.

Half of all complaints were either still awaiting decision or dismissed. One in three were resolved informally, while a further 4.7 per cent were formally resolved in the public authority’s favour, with a similar ratio partially upheld.

Freedom of Information campaigner Heather Brooke said the findings showed it was time for the Information Commissioner to come under the direct control of Parliament.

‘By resolving so many complaints informally, the Commissioner has abdicated his responsibility to set important case law in the area of Freedom of Information,’she said.

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‘That so few rulings favour the public shows why the Commissioner should be accountable directly to Parliament and not Government, as there seems to be a clear bias in favour of his paymaster.”

A spokesman for the ICO said the Commissioner preferred informal resolution as part of a policy to resolve complaints ‘by co-operation, not compulsion”. Unlike the Information Tribunal, the ICO does not routinely make public its rulings.

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