Friday, 9 November 2012

An interesting question

A close look at one of the What Do They Know requests for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) brings up a fascinating question - without the answer.

On 21 May 2012, an enquirer called Ben Brown asked a series of questions. One, for instance, was about the overseas travel costs of the department for the period 2007-2011; a fairly routine kind of request. But this one had a backstory.

It turns out that this was not the first time it had been asked. On 23 May 2011, this question was asked in the Northern Ireland Assembly by the Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister. On 5 December he wrote about it on his blog, listing it as one of a series of questions in the Assembly which had not been answered despite the 10 working day limit specifed in the Assembly's standing orders. On 17 May this year, a press release on the party's website pointed out that there was still no answer available.

Mr Brown got no reply until 2 July, well past the limit allowed by the law. All the questions were refused, on a single basis: that they were identical to Assembly questions, and to answer them would breach section 36(2)(c) of the FOI Act - that it would prejudice the conduct of public affairs, because it would undermine the workings of the Assembly by disclosing 'unvalidated information'.

That strikes me as a very dubious response. Firstly, in principle an FOI request should be responded to without reference to what might have been asked in the Assembly; the two are separate information regimes. Secondly, it should be answered within 20 working days - which would have been adequate to respond in the Assembly as well. Mr Brown would have been within his rights to ask for a review and if that did not produce the information, take it to the Information Commissioner. Instead, he rephrased his questions and asked for this to be treated as a new request - a tactical mistake, I am afraid. He got a response on 31 October to say his request was 'still under consideration'.

This strikes me as a very poor approach from the OFMDFM. It's annoying to see requesters with a good case palmed off with this. I doubt very much that the Information Commissioner would let them away with it.

Incidentally, Mr Allister finally got his response on 21st September - and not a very helpful one: "Information is not held on the departmental accounting system at the level of detail requested and could only be provided at disproportionate cost." That may well be true, but if so the answer could have been provided in 1 working day!

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