Northern Ireland news

'Significant reduction' in Freedom of Information backlog says PSNI

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd. Picture by Mal McCann
Brendan Hughes

THE PSNI is "working extremely hard" to eliminate its backlog of unanswered Freedom of Information requests, a senior police officer has said.

Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd there has been a "significant reduction" after recruiting new staff, and police are providing the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) watchdog with monthly updates.

Last year 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 if problems continued.

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 MPs' expenses scandal.

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.

Last year's backlog of 273 requests which had not been responded to within the legislative timescale has since been reduced to 69.

Mr Todd said the PSNI received 1,459 FOI requests in 2018 and 1,389 in 2019 so far.

He said the PSNI's Corporate Information Branch now has 21 full-time staff attached to it, with 10 new employees joining since last year.

"In total 163 requests remain outstanding, of which 83 are actively being processed. Of those outstanding requests, 69 have not been responded to within the 20 day timescale set out by section 10 of the Freedom of Information Act," he said.

Mr Todd said the PSNI meets with the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) and provides the watchdog with monthly updates on the progress on delivering an action plan to eradicate the backlog.

He added: "The Police Service of Northern Ireland has been working extremely hard to eradicate its backlogs including resourcing new staff, implementing training and working closely with the Information Commissioner's Office in keeping them updated on progress.

"Whilst backlog numbers have fallen, we will continue to advance this work until all requests received by us are answered promptly and in line with legislative timescales.

"PSNI takes its obligations toward request handling very seriously and understands that the Freedom of Information legislation provides an important framework for the public to access information held by public authorities and fosters a culture of transparency and accountability in all public bodies including PSNI."

An ICO spokesman said: "Following advice and engagement from the ICO, Police Service Northern Ireland has been making progress in dealing with a backlog of delayed responses to Freedom of Information requests.

"While such improvement is welcome, the ICO will continue to monitor the force's performance in order to assist it to make necessary further improvements and achieve compliance with its statutory responsibilities."

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