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DfE rapped by watchdog as 1 in 4 FOI responses arrive late

The Department for Education has been ordered to respond more quickly to freedom of information (FOI) requests or face enforcement action, after admitting to missing the deadline in up to a quarter of cases.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has rapped the department for a “declining level of performance overall in terms of the timeliness of its responses to requests for information” since 2019.

National statistics show the DfE responded to less than 80 per cent of requests within the statutory timeframe of 20 working days in 2020, 2021 and 2022.

In November last year, the DfE told the ICO that it was responding to “just 75 per cent of requests within the required time limit”. One response “was reported as being more than 12 months overdue at January 2024”.

The department has until the end of May to comply with recommendations from the ICO. Failure to do so could result in an enforcement notice.

It is not the first time the DfE has been reprimanded by the ICO. In 2020, the watchdog found the department broke data protection laws in the way it handles pupil data, following an investigation that revealed widespread failures.

And in 2022, it was reprimanded over a “serious breach” of data protection law which allowed a firm providing age-verification for gambling companies access to the personal information of millions of young people.

DfE ‘taking action’

The ICO acknowledged the DfE is “taking action” to improve the speed of FOI responses, and reported that senior level interest in FOIA “has had a positive impact on its performance recently”.

The department now offers new training on the freedom of information act for staff.

The age profile of requests where responses are overdue “isn’t high overall, although one response was reported as being more than 12 months overdue at January 2024”.

ICO staff have engaged with DfE officials about the “underlying reasons for its failure to lift its overall response rate to an acceptable and sustained level of compliance”.

“Improvements have been made as outlined above and early data from 2024 has seen performance creep up to 81 per cent.

“Given the timeliness issues DfE has experienced over what is now a prolonged period, however, it’s clear that DfE’s request handling practices does not consistently conform to [the government’s code of practice].”

Warren Seddon, ICO director of freedom of information and transparency, said transparency was “fundamental to our democracy. Information delayed is information denied, and people have the legal right to promptly receive information they’re entitled to”.

“The commissioner has been clear that public sector leaders should take transparency seriously. Where organisations fail to do this we will take enforcement action so people’s information rights are upheld.”

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