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BRITAIN’S transparency watchdog is so short-staffed that the public’s “right to know” is under threat, experts have told the Morning Star.
Their stark warning is the latest development in our investigation into the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which we revealed last month has just two staff at its Belfast bureau.
The stressed-out pair have to handle complaints about freedom of information (FOI) requests that have been rejected by scores of public bodies across Northern Ireland.
The extreme lack of staff means the Belfast bureau is failing to process complaints within its six-month target and there are now dozens of complaints over a year old.
The longest-running case has taken at least 618 days.
The ICO has acknowledged there is a problem, saying: “We know some of the cases in Northern Ireland are taking longer than we expected because of some of the complexities involved and we are assigning additional resources to this work.”
Although the watchdog also handles complaints against public bodies in England and Wales, 85 per cent of its oldest cases relate to authorities in Northern Ireland.
To cope with the backlog, some cases have now been transferred from Belfast to the ICO’s head office in Wilmslow, Cheshire, which has 47 case workers.
However the ICO told us: “There are currently no plans to recruit more staff to deal with FOI casework in the ICO’s Belfast Office.”
We showed our findings to legal expert Daniel Holder, deputy director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice in Belfast, who said:
“The cases which are taking over a year to deal with are clearly disproportionately affecting Northern Ireland.
“I think the Information Commissioner should look at increasing its resourcing and staffing levels here.”
He warned: “Where there is under-resourcing and consequent delays it really blunts the effectiveness of freedom of information enforcement.
“This is because ministers and public authorities will feel confident in withholding information that should be released as it is going to take so long for enforcement to happen and the issue may no longer be a live issue by the time the documents see the light of day.”
Transparency International UK said it was also concerned.
The group’s senior advocacy manager Alan Lally-Francis commented:
“Clearly, if it takes almost two years for the Information Commissioner’s Office to review a complaint something isn’t right.
“Failure to respond to access to information complaints in a timely manner does nothing for confidence in the public’s right to know.”
“In theory, the UK has a good framework for providing access to information held by public bodies, yet this means little in practice if those overseeing compliance with these rules have insufficient resources to ensure it is being followed.”
Our investigation has found that a quarter of the ICO’s total backlog relates to complaints about the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
It is the only police force to feature in the backlog, suggesting it is more secretive than its counterparts in England and Wales.
Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, told us that the PSNI cases needed “urgent attention” and the time taken to resolve some of the complaints was “way over the top.”
The PSNI is the successor to the Royal Ulster Constabulary and is responsible for sensitive files about police operations during the Troubles.
In one case it has refused to release a report from 1973 about the reorganisation of Special Branch — the secretive police squad which is alleged to have colluded with terrorists.
That case, of the so-called Morton report, was referred to the Information Commissioner’s team in Belfast over 500 days ago, which has still not reached a decision. It is now the 10th longest-running complaint.
Despite concerns that files about the Troubles are being covered up, the Information Commissioner refused to say how many other cases in the backlog relate to the conflict.
It told the Morning Star: “We have not carried out any assessment as to which of these cases may raise issues relating [to] ‘legacy’ issues from the Troubles.”
However Mr Holder has demanded answers: “The manner in which requests to the PSNI account for such a high proportion of delayed complaints cries out for explanation and is concerning in light of the broader issues concerning delayed disclosure within policing.
“This has been the case in relation to legacy issues, where we have seen endemic delays.”
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