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How we help police forces comply with FOIA – and what we do if they don’t

Phillip Angell is Head of FOI Complaints and Appeals

The fundamental right to ask questions of and hold public authorities to account is a cornerstone of our democracy. Every day our lives are enhanced by the release of information that empowers us to make informed choices. Take restaurant hygiene ratings or car make and model MOT test failure rates – these were once kept from the public but are now proactively published, enabling people to make informed decisions.

As regulator of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA), our role is to ensure all public authorities (PAs), including police forces, comply with the Act. We do this by enforcing the law, but also by acting as an educator – working with individual PAs to suggest areas for improvement and to spot best practice that can be shared for the benefit of all.

One of the ways we achieve this is by carrying out consensual audits, which we have recently completed with nine police forces. The aim of our audit is to assess measures in place and individually report back key findings. They serve another purpose too, as we proactively publish overall outcomes reports setting out our findings and recommendations that can broadly be used by all PAs to improve compliance.

Our recent police audits resulted in 152 recommendations for improvements across seven distinct areas. These included improved policies and procedures to mitigate against reduced staff levels and resources, to improved training and freedom of information awareness within PAs. We’ll be revisiting each police force within nine to 12 months of publishing our report to check these recommendations have been actioned.

We found best practice too, with some forces holding weekly risk assessment meetings to discuss and categorise new freedom of information (FOI) requests. This approach ensures the correct handling and response to requests and we encourage a wider adoption of this approach by all subject to the FOIA.

Parallel with this audit snapshot, we informally spoke with a number of high-performing police forces across the country to find out more about their procedures and then share this best practice. We identified six common themes that were in place which contributed to the forces getting things right:

  • Senior leadership buy-in
    • FOI officers acknowledged the benefit of FOI visibility at executive command level.
  • Good internal relationships
    • FOI officers felt it was important to develop and maintain good working relationships with information owners.
  • Multi-functional teams
    • Increased staff with a generic role helps to tackle sudden increases in request volumes.
  • Request handling practices
    • Pro-forma memos in place ensure expectations of FOI officers are met.
  • Proactive disclosures
    • FOI ‘hot topics’ such as enforcement action relating to dangerous dogs are proactively published.
  • Networking
    • Being part of networks across various police forces or services aids response to thematic FOI requests and leads to the sharing of good practice.

We have a growing set of resources on our website and PAs can also learn more about FOI good practice by signing up to our free virtual conference, which will have dedicated FOI workshops.

Whilst our role as educator has tangible benefits, there are times when we have to reach into our enforcement toolbox and take proportionate regulatory action against public authorities who are not responding to requests within 20 working days.

We have recently issued enforcement notices against three police forces for poor FOI performance which has led to significant backlogs in their responses:

  • Dyfed Powys Police (DPP) – Compliance levels fell as low as 6% (June 2023) and the Information Commissioner received 13 complaints in 2023 in relation to timeliness of responses. By 9 November 2024, DPP is required to respond to all information requests which were outside of 20 working days when the Enforcement Notice was served on 9 May 2024.
  • Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) – Compliance levels were consistently low between 60% to 67% from April 2023 to February 2024. By 1 November 2024, MPS is required to respond to the backlog of 362 cases which were outside of 20 working days when the enforcement notice was served on 1 May 2024.
  • South Wales Police (SWP) – Compliance levels fell to 45% in July 2023 and as of 31 April 2024 167 requests were overdue, with one case being 122 days old. By 20 December 2024, SWP is required to respond to all information requests which were outside of 20 working days when the enforcement notice was served on 20 June 2024.

We’ve also asked each force to devise and publish action plans setting out measures they will take to respond to requests in time and clear their backlogs.

The first FOI laws can be traced back to 1766 when legislation was implemented in Sweden. In the intervening years, the laws have become an essential part of worldwide democracy. Over 100 countries have adopted some form of legislation, encouraging transparency in government and enabling people to hold their governments to account.

England, Northern Ireland and Wales’ freedom of information law turns 25 next year. As the regulator we will continue to work with and hold PAs to account to ensure that people’s fundamental human right of access to information is maintained.

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