Some of our followers are already aware of the power of the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) and the Access to Information on the Environment Regulations (AIE) and their importance in keeping policy makers and public bodies in check. Those who are will also be aware of the long delays which occur when FOI and AIE requests are appealed to the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) or Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information (OCEI).
A quick review of the recent decisions list highlights a phrase common to all:
I regret the delay in concluding this review: it arose due to a shortage of resources in my Office, which has now been addressed.
On reading this most people would now understand that the long delays on appeals, and resource issues, at the Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information are now over. However, a friend of our group had reason to make an appeal to the OCEI recently. After waiting nearly seven weeks he wrote to the OCEI seeking an update on his appeal only to be told that the appeal as being processed by the Support Unit and they would notify him as soon as the Commissioner for Environmental Information decided whether or not to accept the appeal.
This raised alarm bells and he followed up with a number of queries in relation to processing appeals and expected timelines. We have to say we are shocked by the response of the OCEI:
Our best current estimate is that, if a case is accepted today, an investigator would not be in a position to commence actively working on the case for at least six months.
Sadly it seems the the Commissioner for Environmental Information has been overstating the effect of the additional resources he has received. It seems an appeal to his office can now take about 7 weeks to be accepted but then must wait for an additional six months before an investigator begins working on it. Bearing in mind that a request has to go through an initial decision and internal review before it makes its way to the OCEI access to environmental information through the AIE regulations may take at least a year, in particular where public bodies object to release. This seems to run contrary to the principles of timeliness of access contained in national and international law which underpin the AIE regulations.
The lack of resources at the OCEI has not yet been adequately addressed.