Cabinet Office blamed for 'serious shortcomings' on FOI
The Cabinet Office is supposed to be leading the government's drive towards greater openness, but today it has been criticised by the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham for "serious shortcomings" in its handling of freedom of information requests.
Mr Graham says the Cabinet Office's poor performance is "particularly disappointing" and has announced today that it will now be subject to a period of intensive monitoring by his office to ensure improvement.
This is the second time the Cabinet Office has been targeted in this way due to persistent problems with its FOI processes. Three years ago it signed an undertaking to rectify its failings in dealing with information requests.
Mr Graham has also added two other authorities to the Commissioner's monitoring list - the Crown Prosecution Service and Hackney Council.
The decision will probably come as little surprise to those who have read recent decisions from the Commissioner's office drawing attention to the Cabinet Office's frequent failure to comply with its legal obligations.
Nor will it surprise frustrated requesters who have been seeking information from the Cabinet Office, many of whom have then complained to the Commissioner (and I should declare an interest as one of them).
There are numerous FOI officers in other public authorities who are angered by the Cabinet Office's track record and the contrast with its rhetoric on increasing transparency. They regard it as setting an extremely bad example to the rest of the public sector. There's a widespread opinion that it has been allowed to get away with failings that other FOI units would not be.
On the other hand within the Cabinet Office itself there's a view that it handles particularly tricky cases at the heart of government with far-reaching implications, and these are inevitably more complex and time-consuming.
Targeting selected poor performing public authorities with a period of intensive monitoring has become one of the Information Commissioner's main tactics. But many in the FOI sector question whether this is a tough enough approach in dealing with the persistent worst offenders.
These doubts will be strengthened in many minds by today's announcement. Not only has the Cabinet Office reverted to being required to go through the same process again, the Commissioner has disclosed that two other major public authorities already subject to monitoring - the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police - have nevertheless failed to make satisfactory improvements.
The Home Office will be monitored for another three months, while Mr Graham is considering what further action to take in the case of the Met Police.
So one upshot of this is that the small group of public authorities identified by the Information Commissioner as currently having the worst record on compliance with legal obligations on freedom of information include the following: the Cabinet Office, the Home Office, the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service. All of whom might have been expected to have attached a high regard to abiding by the law.