The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) may well have become something a Charter for lazy journalism. It is also a statutory obligation placed upon public authorities:
Any person making a request for information to a public authority is entitled – (a) to be informed in writing by the public authority whether it holds information of the description specified in the request, and (b) if that is the case, to have that information communicated to him.FOIA, Section 1(1)
Further, the public authority must respond promptly and, in any event, within 20 days of receiving any request.
The Information Commissioner recently found herself in the position of being both the regulator and the regulated.
Quis custodiet Ipsos custodes / Who will guard the guards themselves?Juvenal (55-140)
On 18 May 2021, a FOIA request was received by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) relating to information provided by NHS Digital to ICO. The ICO acknowledged the request on 19 May 2021.
On 19 June 2021, the individual who made the FOIA request (the complainant) complained to the ICO that the ICO had failed to comply with his FOIA request.
On 5 July 2021, ICO the regulator wrote to ICO the regulated, asking it to provide a substantive response to the complainant within 10 working days. Despite this, the ICO did not respond.
The ICO, therefore, issued a decision notice to the ICO on 27 July 2021, confirming that it had not complied with its statutory requirements.
This case highlights the difficulties that can be faced by public authorities in complying with their Freedom of Information obligations, particularly where voluminous data is involved. In such cases, a public authority may be entitled to refuse a request according to ICO guidelines. In any case, a public authority is not, however, entitled to simply ignore a FOIA request.