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THE government’s transparency watchdog is chronically short-staffed and has dozens of cases over a year old, the Morning Star has found.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) investigates complaints made about freedom of information (FOI) requests that have been rejected by public bodies in England, Wales and the north of Ireland.
Despite its powerful mandate, the ICO has just two staff assigned to processing complaints at its bureau in Belfast, where the backlog is worst.
Over 80 per cent of the ICO’s 32 oldest cases have piled up at the Belfast bureau, the Morning Star can reveal. These cases were all submitted over a year ago, despite the ICO’s target to close cases within six months.
The Belfast bureau is now so far behind that almost a quarter of its workload involves clearing the backlog.
Its two staff members handle complaints about FOI responses by devolved bodies and local authorities in the north of Ireland, some of which relate to sensitive files about the Troubles.
Our research also shows that the ICO’s two other bureaus, in Wales and England, are much more efficient.
The head office in Wilmslow, which houses 47 of the watchdog’s 51 complaints officers, has a backlog of just five cases to deal with.The watchdog’s team in Cardiff is just as small as the Belfast bureau but only has one outstanding case that is over a year old, compared with 26 in Belfast.
An ICO spokesperson said: “We know some of the cases in Northern Ireland are taking longer than we expected because of some of the complexities involved and we are assigning additional resources to this work.”
BELFAST PILE UP
One of the oldest cases involves a complaint made to the ICO’s Belfast bureau by the Morning Star 17 months ago.
The watchdog took nine months to even start investigating our complaint, which was about the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
We complained after the force, which maintains an archive of sensitive files from the Troubles, refused to hand over a report written by an MI5 counterinsurgency expert, John Morton, in 1973.
The PSNI said releasing the so-called Morton Report could jeopardise national security.
Reacting to our findings, Dr Kevin Hearty, a legal scholar at Queen’s University Belfast, said: “These figures raise serious concerns about openness and transparency.
“Of particular concern is the fact that access to information relevant to the Troubles is being detrimentally impacted here too.”
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