8.5 Percent of Freedom of Information Requests to Central Government Made Via WhatDoTheyKnow.com


Monday, July 13th, 2009. 4:37am

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With the help of other members of the team who look after mySociety’s Freedom of Information (FOI) site WhatDoTheyKnow.com I have used statistics released by the Ministry of Justice to look at the proportion of FOI requests being made via the site.

  • In the first quarter of 2009 8.5% of all requests made to central government departments were made using WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
  • One in five FOI requests to the Home Office (122 of 643) were made via the site.

Breakdown by Organisation for Q1 2009


Department Total FOI Requests Requests Via WDTK WDTK Share
Attorney General’s Office 19 1 5.3
Cabinet Office 274 23 8.4
Communities and Local Government 204 18 8.8
Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform 216 12 5.6
Department for Children, Schools and Families 217 27 12.4
Department for Culture, Media and Sport 176 6 3.4
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 131 16 12.2
Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills 74 4 5.4
Department for International Development 80 4 5.0
Department for Transport 586 41 7.0
Department for Work and Pensions 533 34 6.4
Department of Energy and Climate Change 55 3 5.5
Department of Health 423 40 9.5
Export Credits Guarantee Department 9 0 0.0
Foreign and Commonwealth Office 281 25 8.9
HM Treasury 446 27 6.1
Home Office 643 122 19.0
Ministry of Defence 758 70 9.2
Ministry of Justice 757 38 5.0
Northern Ireland Office 65 1 1.5
Scotland Office 58 2 3.4
Wales Office 14 0 0.0
Central Govt. Depts. Totals 6019 514 8.5%
Central Office of Information 20 3 15.0
Charity Commission 142 5 3.5
Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission 33 0 0.0
Crown Prosecution Service 125 10 8.0
Debt Management Office 4 0 0.0
Food Standards Agency 28 5 17.9
Health and Safety Executive 1,711 2 0.1
HM Land Registry 33 6 18.2
HM Revenue and Customs 323 18 5.6
National Archives 1,056 6 0.6
National Savings and Investments 33 0 0.0
Office for National Statistics 32 8 25.0
Office for Standards in Education 318 8 2.5
Office of Fair Trading 79 0 0.0
Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (OFGEM) 53 1 1.9
Office of Rail Regulation 63 3 4.8
Ordnance Survey 37 2 5.4
Royal Mint 5 2 40.0
Rural Payments Agency 73 0 0.0
Serious Fraud Office 27 0 0.0
Treasury Solicitor’s Department 55 0 0.0
Water Services Regulation Authority (OFWAT) 25 0 0.0

WDTK = WhatDoTheyKnow; Table lists bodies monitored by Ministry of Justice; Source for total FOI request statistics : Statistics for Q1 2009 (released on the 25th of June 2009).

In order to compare the statistics from WhatDoTheyKnow with those published by the Ministry of Justice it was necessary to consider the agencies run by various departments which the WhatDoTheyKnow lists separately but the Ministry of Justice generally include in the department’s figures.

Only a tiny fraction of the public bodies subject to FOI have their performance monitored centrally. All state schools (apart from academies), NHS hospitals and PCTs, Police Forces and Councils are subject to the Act yet there are no central statistics on the number of requests made to them, or how well they handle them. There are many tens of thousands of bodies subject to the FOI Act in the UK, the Ministry of Justice only monitors 44. Complaints about the performance, with respect to their duties under the FOIA, of any body subject to FOI can be referred to the Information Commissioner.

Of particular note is the large number of requests made to the Health and Safety Executive. The MoJ report states: “The Health and Safety Executive is the only monitored body to have received more than 1,000 requests during each quarter since the Act was implemented”. The HSE’s disclosure log contains relatively few documents. The statistic may be related to the fact the HSE appears to outsource its FOI compliance to Connaught Group (it asks requestors to write to a @connaught.plc.uk email address). Perhaps it would be possible to phrase an FOI request in such a way as to find out.

Scotland

The Scottish Government has released a publication entitled: Information request handling in the Scottish Government Quarterly Statistics Bulletin Q1: January to March 2009. It reveals that 423 FOI requests were received by the Scottish Government Q1 2009. The corresponding bodies listed on WhatDoTheyKnow.com are listed below, along with the number of requests made via the site in Q1 2009:

  • Scottish Government 12
  • Historic Scotland 1
  • Transport Scotland 1
  • Accountant in Bankruptcy 0
  • HM Inspectorate of Education 1
  • Student Awards Agency for Scotland 0
  • Social Work Inspection Agency 0
  • Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency 0
  • Scottish Public Pensions Agency 0

In total 15 out of 423 requests were made via WhatDoTheyKnow (3.5%). This statistic does not really reflect the extensive Scottish coverage of WhatDoTheyKnow, it does not take into account bodies such as Edinburgh Council, Glasgow Council and The Scottish Parliament and many more.

Advantages of WhatDoTheyKnow

There are many advantages of using WhatDoTheyKnow.com to make FOI requests including:

  • Information released is made available on the internet for others.
    • This can reduce time and expense incurred by authorities dealing with duplicate requests.
    • It can make the information more easily accessible to others, eg. via an internet search
  • Third party proof a request has been made is available to requesters. There is evidence online of any non-compliance with the FOI act.
  • It can be shown that information released actually came from the authority.
  • The site makes it easier for requests to be made (users don’t have to look up email addresses) and enables users to keep track of the progress of requests. This can be of particular importance to those making many requests, eg. for a survey

Advantages of Freedom of Information

I believe Freedom of Information in public authorities results in cheaper and more effective government, as transparency can:

  • Deter corruption, fraud and malpractice as those tempted will be aware they are likely to be found out.
  • Ensure a healthy balance of power between the individual and the state.
  • Enable those in power to be held to account for their actions.
  • Bring wider commercial, economic benefits as information previously held by the state becomes available to all.

4 comments/updates on “8.5 Percent of Freedom of Information Requests to Central Government Made Via WhatDoTheyKnow.com

  1. Richard Article author

    I have received an explanation from the HSE for their anomalous FOI statistics:

    In 2008, 87% of HSE’s FOI requests were handled by the Field Operations Directorate, mainly for information wanted by requestors for civil proceedings, usually with regard to an accident or incident at work. This type of request is not suitable for publication on the website, because they will contain personal information and will generally be of little interest to anyone not associated with the case.

  2. Richard Article author

    I have received the below more extensive reply:

    Dear Richard,

    I thought it might help if I gave you a more detailed explanation as to why these requests are dealt with under the FOI Act, rather than under other legislation.

    Before the FOI Act was introduced, HSE developed, with the co-operation of the Law Society in England and Wales, a procedure for releasing certain information to parties voluntarily. This procedure, in general, allows us to release what we think a court would order us to release if an application for an order for disclosure was made.

    The system requires that the applicant provide HSE with evidence that civil proceedings are underway and provide details of the case (claim form), and HSE would only voluntarily provide that (factual) information which is relevant to the case. Civil proceedings can be regarded as legally in being only after the claim form has been issued. Before the issue of a claim form there can be only prospective proceedings. This distinction is important as in some cases it determines what information can be released and/or when it can be released.

    The procedure still operates, but unless an applicant asks for their request to be treated under the voluntary procedure (Civil Procedure Rules), HSE would treat it as an FOI request. When the FOI Act was first introduced, HSE did consider how best to handle civil disclosure requests (i.e. FOI or CPR). We consulted the Department for Constitutional Affairs (now the Ministry of Justice) and our own legal advisers, who agreed that if HSE received a request for information that we held, it would have to be treated as an FOI request, because the FOI Act is applicant-blind (the applicant doesn’t have to say why they want the information). As a consequence, it is much easier for applicants to request information regarding civil cases under the FOI Act, because they don’t have to provide evidence that proceedings are underway.

    I hope that I have made things clearer, but please get back in touch if you have any further questions.

    Kind regards

    Steve Newman LLM, BSc (Hons) FOI Unit

  3. SHC

    I would estimate that about 35 per cent (based on a reasonable sample) of all FOI’s to local government and its regulators are through the Whatdotheyknow site and that it is proving very effective

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