Government departments previously run by the new prime minister and chancellor have been reprimanded by a watchdog after “consistently failing” to comply with transparency laws.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), was reprimanded by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) after failing to respond to freedom of information requests on time.
The Department for International Trade (DIT) was also rebuked and handed its first enforcement notice in seven years by the ICO, the UK’s independent regulator for data protection and information rights law.
Ms Truss was in charge of DIT from July 2019 to September 2021 – a year where the ICO said the department “response times increased” despite no known increase in requests.
ICO chiefs said the reprimand was part of its renewed approach to regulating the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
The UK’s information commissioner warned public authorities the office would be making use of its powers under the act “to drive good practice and compliance”.
John Edwards said: “For the first time in seven years, the ICO has issued a Freedom of Information enforcement notice, which clearly marks the start of our new approach to regulating the Act.
“Accountability and transparency in the work of public authorities is fundamental to democracy and it is the ICO’s role to ensure that people’s right to access information is protected.
“I advise public authorities to take note and learn lessons from the action we have taken today, as we will be making greater use of our powers under the Act to drive good practice and compliance.”
DIT was late answering more than half of requests from January to March and had the worst response figures in central government.
Statistics showed that its response times declined in 2021 despite no significant increase in requests or known resource issues at the department, the ICO said.
The regulator said the delays were “simply due to internal process failings, rather than more significant problems”.
The department has been told it must respond to any outstanding requests older than 20 working days within 35 calendar days of the enforcement notice.
It should also publish an action plan formalising measures to mitigate future delays.
Failure to comply with the notice could lead to the department being found in contempt of court, it has been warned.
BEIS was told how it should improve its performance after it “consistently failed to respond to a significant number of the information access requests received within the statutory time limit”.
The BEIS has had a 55 per cent increase in requests since 2020, but the ICO found the department’s internal procedures caused many responses to be delayed, and the the volume to increase.
The ICO said that due to changes highlighted by the BEIS and its positive engagement the watchdog, it was issued with a practice recommendation rather than an enforcement notice.
While a practice recommendation is not enforceable, an enforcement notice could be issued if performance does not improve.
A BEIS spokesperson said: “The ICO recognises the generally high standard of BEIS’ Freedom of Information responses and the significant impact caused by the 55 per cent increase in requests since the pandemic began.
“We are committed to handling requests in a timely way while managing this alongside tackling the energy crisis and driving economic growth, and we are engaging with the ICO’s office on the next steps.”
A DIT Spokesperson said: “We are fully committed to our transparency obligations and responded to over 500 FOI requests received last year. We continue to evaluate and improve our internal processes and will respond to the ICO in due course.”