FOI Man asks if reduced resources are causing the Information Commissioner to cut corners on important FOI decisions.
In legislative terms, FOI and its sidekick, the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR), are spring chickens. We’re still feeling our way through their implications, which is why, from time to time surprising things crop up.
One thing that’s important to know, you’d think, is where the boundaries lie. Who is subject to the duty to answer requests and who isn’t.
Recently the Royal Household was asked for information under the Environmental Information Regulations. It is quite clear that the Household is not subject to FOI, but EIR is a different beast, as the Duchy of Cornwall (run for the Duke of Cornwall’s benefit, or Prince Charles as you and I know him best) has discovered.
The request was rejected on the grounds that the Household is not subject to the EIR, and as you might expect, an appeal was made to the Information Commissioner.
Last week the requester received the Commissioner’s decision. It – perhaps unsurprisingly – found in favour of the Royal Household. But what is surprising is that it appears that large parts of the decision’s reasoning have been copied and pasted from Wikipedia and the Royal Household’s own website.
Now I’m not going to crow about the rights and wrongs of plagiarism (though others have criticised them for this). I’m sure there are FOI Officers out there who have copied chunks of the ICO’s decisions into their own FOI responses without citing them where it suited. And it’s not difficult to see how a slip up like this could be made by a junior caseworker working on a minor case where the issues are not of great potential dispute.
But it does seem odd to me that on a decision as important as this, potentially establishing the boundaries of environmental information access, argument could be taken from other sources, apparently with little critical thought. And that internal quality controls didn’t pick that up.
Could this be evidence of a lack of resources at the ICO potentially affecting the quality of decision making? Given recent reports that the ICO faces further significant cuts (in line, of course, with other parts of the public sector), this may be a worrying sign.