Council in move to speed up replies to FOI calls

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A COUNCIL which last year dealt with over 1,000 Freedom of Information requests has drawn up proposals to deal with them quicker.

In 2005-06 Kirklees Council handled 284 requests under the Freedom of Information Act and Environmental Information Regulations which covers requests relating pollution and health and safety.

By 2010-11 this had risen to 876 and last year it hit 1,137.

Last year 962 (85 per cent) of requests were responded to within 20 working days, which is in line with the minimum standard required by the Information Commissioner’s Office, which enforces compliance with the law.

However, Kirklees Council says there is room for improvement because response times during some months fell below the standard expected.

Only 68 per cent of requests for information in December were responded to within the 20-day deadline. The council blamed the performance in December on a lack of staff.

In September 77 per cent of requests were responded to within the deadline, according to the report.

One of the poorest performing departments was the children and young people directorate which achieved a 28 per cent success rate in September. The department cited an Ofsted inspection for the slow responses.

A council spokesman said: “There has been a 24 per cent increase in the number of requests received this year from last.

“This increase has had to be managed within the existing limited resources with a small amount of additional business support within the reporting period.

“In addition, we continue to receive a significant number of lengthy and complex requests, with 10 per cent of requests received involving two or more services across the council.”

The council is keen to continue making improvements after three complaints were made to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) about delays.

The Information Commissioner monitored the council for three months from April.

From April-June, the council dealt with 210 FOI requests and 90 under the Environment Information Regulations. Overall, the council responded to 88 per cent of those within 20 working days.

The ICO told the council in September that, in light of those response times, there was no need for regulatory action and the enforcement case was closed.

However, the issue of response times could be revisited by
the ICO if there are further incidents.

“The ICO further commented that the statistics show that improvements can still be made and hope Kirklees continues to address its response times moving forward.”

The council has now drawn up a “learning” list to ensure requests for information are dealt with more efficiently.

It says it needs to manage records better to understand what information is held and to identify information which can be published before people ask for it.

Improved training for managers took place in March and new guidance has been published.

The council says the increase in requests for information has been driven by business requests, which rose from 125 in 2010-11 to 228 last year. The number of requests from media dropped from 226 to 206. There was a rise in requests from councillors, MPs and political researchers.

A council spokesman said: “There has been a significant rise in the number of FOI requests we’ve received and it’s pleasing that, despite this challenge, good progress is being made.

“Requests can be complex and can involve many services, so delays do occur due to the amount of information which needs to be collated, but we always do our best to respond as fully and as quickly as possible.

“We have worked very hard to develop the timeliness and quality of our responses to FOI requests.

“Extra training has taken place and we have been proactive in increasing staff knowledge of the FOI legislation so that our processes improve.”

The news of the response times comes as council leader, Mehboob Khan, waits to hear the decision of a tribunal into claims he interfered in the FOI process by commenting on responses before release.

He has denied wrongdoing, saying he merely put information into context so it was better understood. A tribunal ruling is expected shortly.