Written evidence from David Roper-Newman (FOI 37)
I want to emphasise that these are my personal comments, and in no way represent the views of any of my current or former employers.
I am currently employed as an information governance officer in a higher education institution. Part of my role includes managing the organisations responses to formal requests for information, mainly dealt with under the Freedom of Information (FoI) and Data Protection Acts.
Prior to my current employment, I worked for over six years in a small local authority, performing a similar role, which also included dealing with requests under the Environmental Information Regulations.
And, before this, up until 2015 (when I retired from central government to take a post in the local authority) I was a senior manager in a central Government department, responsible, inter alia, for providing responses to certain types of requests for information under the FoI Act, and also for preparing draft responses to certain Parliamentary Questions. I had this job for around eight years, and prior to this a long career in the civil service.
It goes without saying that I have a very broad experience of dealing with matters arising under the FoI Act, and also with seeing information from the Cabinet Office Clearing House. In my time I have seen several thousand FoI requests and responded to many of these on behalf of my employing organisation.
My comments are brief. After leaving the civil service and working in a local authority – and the same is also true in respect of dealing with FoI requests in a higher education setting – I soon came to the view that it would be extremely helpful if there was some central body that could provide some suggested lines to individual local authority or central government organisations, along the lines of that support and advice provided by the Clearing House.
I am reminded of the comments that were made in evidence to the report of the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information that was published in March 2016.
In that report there were comments about the time taken to answer requests. Many local authorities are small organisations, often without major resources or expertise available or at their disposal. In comparison, many central government departments are large organisations, able to respond quickly and efficiently to requests and drawing on expert advice within their own organisations.
Chapter 7 of the FoI Commission’s report indicated that there had been a very substantial response on the question of burdens. I am unable to find the reference but I know that one senior local government representative did explain in evidence to the Commission the impact of one ‘Round Robin’ request on the whole of local government, and I recall that the figure ran into many tens of thousands of pounds.
It is a fact that a very large proportion of requests received by public authorities are from commercial organisations, rather than interested members of the public. Inevitably as I have indicated many smaller organisations do not have the professional legal expertise to deal with certain requests using their own resources and would find the advice service provided by the Clearing House particularly useful. The Clearing House only provides suggestions, its advice is not mandatory. But it provides a useful function in ensuring that requests for information can be responded to quickly, and in a consistent manner.
Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, I would propose that the Clearing House function is retained for central departments, and that consideration is given to establishing something similar for other large groups of public authorities. This would also free up resources in local authority and even higher education organisations and make the process of responding to requests and the time taken to respond, a far smoother process.