Transparency in the reporting of FOI responses?

Today I noticed a line in a BBC News report which I see fairly frequently in news reports that have come from FOI requests and it made me think about whether the reporting is fair on the public authorities concerned.

In this instance the Liberal Democrats had requested information from local councils in Scotland concerning racist incidents recoded at schools. The figures used in the report were based on the responses of three-quarters of the local authorities in Scotland. The BBC report included the wording:

“The party submitted Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to local councils and received responses from three-quarters of them.”

I don’t consider such wording to be fair to the quarter of local authorities who, by implication, haven’t responded. It implies that a quarter of local authorities in Scotland have failed to respond, and as such are failing to comply with the law.  Section 10(1) of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 requires public authorities to respond to requests promptly, and in any even no later than the twentieth working day following receipt. The only exception is where the request (or a similar one) from the same requester has been judged as vexatious and it would be unreasonable for the authority to issue another notice. In such cases the public authority is not obliged to issue a further refusal notice.

Sometimes public authorities fail to comply with section 10(1) for a variety of reasons. However, I find it hard to believe that a quarter of Scotland’s local authorities failed to do so in respect of the same request (although some may have).  That leaves us with a number of explanations as to why there are only figures for 3/4 Scottish local authorities in this case.

1) The Lib Dems released the figures before the 20 working days were up. Some public authorities (including some local authorities) are very good at responding in a time frame much quicker than permitted by law (personally the quickest I ever received a full substantive response from a local authority was one working day – and it included the information I’d requested in full). This seems unlikely though.

2) That some of the local authorities refused the request. This could have been for a variety of reasons: they didn’t hold the information requested, it would have exceeded the appropriate limit or it applied one of the exemptions to the information permitted by the Act).

The second reason above seems the most likely and this is very different from the implication given by the BBC in its coverage of the story. There would have been a response because FOISA requires public authorities to issue refusal notices in all the cases described in number 2.  The response may not have included any disclosure of information, but that’s not the same as receiving no response.

I said at the outset of this post that this phrase is one that is heard or seen often in the reporting of stories which have originated out of FOI. It begs the question: Is this fair reporting? I would have to say that it would appear not to be; implying authorities are not complying with the law without providing the evidence to back it up isn’t very fair. Who is to blame though? The news outlet making the report or the requestor? In some cases the two will be the same.

So should reporting of the results of FOI requests be more transparent?

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