Belfast transparency watchdog criticised over backlog

Dozens of Freedom of Information cases about NI authorities outstanding for over a year

‘There are currently no plans to recruit more staff to deal with FOI casework in the Belfast office.’ Photograph: iStock

‘There are currently no plans to recruit more staff to deal with FOI casework in the Belfast office.’ Photograph: iStock

 

Short-staffing at Northern Ireland’s transparency watchdog is jeopardising the public’s “right to know”, campaigners are warning.

Three groups, including Transparency International, have expressed concern over staff shortages at the Information Commissioner’s Office in Belfast.

The commissioner has just two staff in Belfast to handle complaints about Freedom of Information requests involving Northern Irish authorities, compared with 47 staff at its head office in England.

In March, the office had a backlog of dozens of cases that were more than a year old, despite its own six-month target.

More than four-fifths of its oldest cases relate to public bodies in Northern Ireland. The longest-running complaint has taken 618 days to process and centres on the Department for Communities.

Transparency International UK has said “something isn’t right” and warns that the backlog “does nothing for confidence in the public’s right to know”.

The group’s senior advocacy manager, Alan Lally-Francis, said Britain’s transparency regime meant “little in practice if those overseeing compliance with these rules have insufficient resources”.

Police complaints

A quarter of the backlog involves complaints against police in the North for rejecting Freedom of Information requests.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said the PSNI cases needed “urgent attention” and the delays were “way over the top”.

The 10th-longest-running case concerns a report written by an MI5 expert, John Morton, about how to re-organise RUC Special Branch at the height of the Troubles.

The Irish Times revealed in 2017 that the PSNI was refusing to release the so-called Morton report.

A complaint was made then to the Information Commissioner’s Office but remains unresolved more than 500 days later. The ICO now says it will reach a decision by early May.

Daniel Holder, deputy director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, said the ICO needed more staff in Belfast and there were “endemic delays” around cases relating to legacy issues.

The ICO said it was aware of the delays in Belfast and had transferred some cases to its head office in England.

However it said: “There are currently no plans to recruit more staff to deal with FOI casework in the ICO’s Belfast office.”