“as open and transparent as possible”

Northern Ireland’s First and deputy First Ministers have welcomed the “publication of the fo(u)rth Northern Ireland annual report on Freedom of Information (FOI)”. Their link doesn’t seem to work but the report is available as a pdf file here. And, apparently, “Freedom of Information, openness and transparency are central to the democratic process.” [Who knew?! – Ed] It’ll be news to one MLA, certainly. The statistics reveal that, contrary to the view of a previous First Minister, the vast majority of the 3,015 FOI requests received by the 11 NI departments in 2008 have come from members of the public, 69%. And only 9% from ‘lazy’ journalists. No doubt asking stupid questions.. Btw, 710 requests received during 2008 were refused, “either in full or in part, where one or more exemption or exception was applied.” And here’s an interesting reference in the second section of the report[pdf file]

The most important recommendation flowing from the report [Review of FOI] is that the government should replace the current 30-year rule with a 15-year rule. Complementing this recommendation are others which state that the 15-year rule should be applied fully retrospectively, and that the transition to a 15-year rule be managed by releasing one additional year’s worth of records every year until the backlog has been processed.
Since the publication of the report, the Prime Minister has announced in the UK Parliament that his government will amend public records and FOI legislation to reduce the ‘rule’ to 20 years. Further consultation between the UK government and OFMDFM is anticipated.

The quoted section in full

5.2 ‘30-Year Rule’ Review

In 2007 the Prime Minister commissioned an independent review of the ‘30-year rule’, under which most government records are transferred to The National Archives[4] and made available to the public by the time they are 30 years old. An extended public consultation exercise was held during 2008, and OFMDFM provided evidence by means of a letter to the Chairman of the review team, Paul Dacre (an Executive Director of the Daily Mail and General Trust plc). While supporting a reduction of the ‘rule’, which would increase access to public sector information, OFMDFM also pointed out that any reduction would have significant resource implications.

The review team published its report in January 2009, and reference is made to the impact of the FOI Act in the Chairman’s ‘Foreword’:

‘Above all this Act recognised that the relationship between government and citizen has changed. In a modern democracy, citizens’ trust in those who hold power is not unquestioning. Increasingly they expect to know how public bodies spend taxpayers’ money, why they take particular decisions, and what are their policies for the future.’

The most important recommendation flowing from the report is that the government should replace the current 30-year rule with a 15-year rule. Complementing this recommendation are others which state that the 15-year rule should be applied fully retrospectively, and that the transition to a 15-year rule be managed by releasing one additional year’s worth of records every year until the backlog has been processed.

Since the publication of the report, the Prime Minister has announced in the UK Parliament that his government will amend public records and FOI legislation to reduce the ‘rule’ to 20 years. Further consultation between the UK government and OFMDFM is anticipated.

[4] The transfer takes place at the 20-year point in Northern Ireland under the terms of the Public Records Act (NI), 1923.

And from the Executive summary

The first part sets out the NI Departments’ performance during 2008 in handling requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. Key findings include:
• In 2008, NI Departments received a total number of 3,015 non-routine requests handled under the FOI Act and the EIRs – a 4.7% reduction on the number received in 2007.
• In 2008, 69% of all requests received were submitted by members of the public, followed by the media with 9%.
• 92% of requests received a substantive response within the 20 working day limit (30 days for PRONI when dealing with requests for historical information).
• 73% of “resolvable” requests (those where it was possible to give a substantive decision on whether to release the information being sought) were granted in full in 2008. 8% of resolvable requests resulted in the information being fully withheld.
• 710 requests received during 2008 were refused, either in full or in part, where one or more exemption or exception was applied.
• The most commonly applied exemptions were under section 40 (personal information), section 43 (commercial interests) and section 35 (formulation of government policy).
• A total of 107 internal reviews were requested in relation to information requests received in 2008, on the grounds that some or all of the requested information was withheld.
• In almost one third of internal review cases the original decision was changed.
• There were 14 appeals made to the Information Commissioner’s Office relating to the refusal of information requests in 2008.

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  • Belfast Gonzo

    The recommendation on the reduction to 15 years is old news now, but one name on the review team caught my eye at the time; Sinn Fein’s favourite securocrat, Joe Pilling.