PSNI asks for withdrawal of FOI requests due to coronavirus pressures
THE PSNI is asking people to withdraw Freedom of Information requests due to resource pressures as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
Police said emergency services are facing "unprecedented challenges" during the pandemic and asked people to consider re-submitting their FOI requests at a later date.
FOI legislation gives people a right of access to an array of information held by public bodies and has often been used by campaigners and journalists to expose issues, such as the MP expenses scandal.
Before the pandemic, the PSNI was already having problems answering FOIs on time.
In 2018 it emerged police had amassed a backlog of nearly 300 unanswered FOIs – amounting to more than a fifth of requests received at the time.
It prompted concerns from politicians and transparency campaigners who warned that it impacted scrutiny of policing.
Under the law, public bodies must reply to FOI requests promptly and within 20 working days, but there have been significant delays to many police FOI responses.
By November last year the backlog of 273 requests had been reduced to 69.
In a message to individual FOI requesters, the PSNI warned that the coronavirus crisis will again delay responses to FOIs.
It said: "Given the unprecedented challenges PSNI and other first-line emergency responders face during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic we will not be able to respond to your request within the statutory timescales set out under FOI and data protection legislation and there will now be a further delay in the processing of your request. We sincerely apologise for this but this is out of our control.
"We are working to support partner agencies to ensure critical public health information is available during this time.
"We are asking all requesters to consider re-submitting their requests at a later date.."
The PSNI said it has informed the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) of the issue.
The watchdog said it understands the problems facing public bodies during the pandemic.
An ICO spokeswoman said:
"We're a reasonable and pragmatic regulator, and we understand that organisations' resources, whether they are finances or people, may be diverted away from usual compliance or information rights work into responding to this emergency.
"Whilst we can't extend statutory timescales, we will not be penalising public authorities for prioritising other areas or adapting their usual approach during this extraordinary period.
"We're also advising the public that they may experience understandable delays when making information rights requests during the pandemic."