are to pay half of the information commissioner’s budget bid to clear
the backlog of complaints made under the freedom of information act (FOIA).
The department for constitutional affairs (DCA) has agreed to a boost of £550,000 to the annual budget of £5 million for the office of the information commissioner, which regulates FOIA in the UK.
The figure was revealed to MPs on the constit-utional affairs committee, which is reviewing the first year of full implementation of the UK’s FOIA.
The commissioner, Richard Thomas, last month told the committee that he was still waiting to hear about his bid for an extra £1.13 million to clear by March 2007 the backlog of complaints about responses by public bodies to FOIA requests. He said that 1,500 complaints were yet to be resolved, some 700 of which he described as a “backlog”.
In testimony published by parliament, but subject to corrections by him and committee members, he said: “I will be very frank with you. I would like to have known how much we were going to get two or three months ago. I would like to have known the answer straightaway.”
“The new financial year is about to start. Even if I was told today I have got the £1.13 million, or whatever the figure is going to be, starting to spend that on 1 April is difficult: it takes time to recruit people, to train them up and get them in position. So, already I am deeply anxious that we are going to be in difficulties as the financial year goes forward.”
He added: “If we got nothing, it would take years to clear the backlog; if we got 50%, we reckon we would clear the backlog in two years; if we got the full bid we put in for, 100% of our £1.13 million, we think we can clear the backlog, we said, 14 months starting in January, so we think it would be clear by March 2007, but we have lost two or three months already.”
Baroness Ashton of Upholland, a junior DCA minister, told the committee in her testimony last Tuesday that the commissioner would effectively be receiving three-quarters of his bid.
She said that the DCA had agreed to an extra £550,000 and the commissioner had identified £300,000 of savings.
In her testimony, published by parliament but subject to corrections, she said: “There is £850,000 available to him. His request was for slightly more than that, however these are not easy financial times for all organisations and we think we have given him quite substantial extra support which will enable him to develop the resources that he needs to be more effective.”
“This was dealt with at an official level and not a ministerial level in terms of the detail,” she continued. “It did seem to us, that amount of money would enable him to move quite considerably towards tackling the issues that he has.”
She said that the commissioner was awaiting a report from consultants examining “greater efficiencies and management structures”.
“We hope the combination of those two things will give him the resources he needs to tackle the issues which he is concerned about.”
Asked what chance she gave for the commiss-ioner’s “recovery plan” to work in light of the money made available, she said: “I hope the recovery plan will be entirely successful.”
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