Northants Police draft in volunteers to tackle transparency backlog

Northamptonshire Police's Wootton Hall HQ.
Northamptonshire Police's Wootton Hall HQ.

Volunteers have been called upon by Northants Police in a bid to tackle an unprecedented transparency backlog.

The force is way behind targets and guidelines set to respond to freedom of information (FOI) requests, with some overdue by more than 100 days.

Last year police said they were ‘enacting a recovery plan’ to tackle the problem - but more requests for data and information mean they are still behind the maximum time limit of 20 working days to respond with information.

The Freedom of Information Act allows members of the public and others to request information from public organisations to scrutinise their performance, increasing transparency and public accountability.

One request by this newspaper about the force’s arrests for controlling or coercive behaviour was made on September 21 last year and has still not been responded to. Information should have been received by no later than the end of October and is now 142 working days overdue.

Now volunteers and other staff members have been brought in to try and reduce the backlog.

A police spokesman said: “In a bid to address the backlog, four individuals from other departments across the force have been drafted in to work on FOIs.

“We are also currently recruiting another permanent FOI officer who will also help us address the delays once in post.

“Force volunteers have also been drafted in to carry out administration duties for the FOI team.

“They are a valued resource who both complement and enhance the core staffing of the information unit.

“We also continue to work closely with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to address the backlog and hope the steps taken so far in terms of extra resource will help us get more up-to-date with FOI requests.”

The spokesman added that they are dealing with an average of 120 requests for data per month, compared to 90 requests per month this time last year.

They added that they understand the frustration at not being able to respond within the required timeframe but that finalising responses often requires the work of several departments.

The spokesman added: “FOIs are often multi-faceted with numerous questions that refer to more than one area of the organisation, therefore requiring the input of a number of individuals from various departments, many of which who are not resourced to carry out FOI work alongside their main duties.”

Failing to comply with the act by not responding within the required timeframe cannot be punished financially but an enforcement notice can be issued.

An ICO spokesman said they have been working with the force and that they had now responded to all FOI and subject access requests (SARs) more than six months old - although two requests by this newspaper that are eight months old have not been responded to.

The spokesman said: “We have seen improvements in responding to requests within the statutory deadlines.

“However, there is further work to be done to be meet the statutory response times and we will be considering whether further regulatory action is appropriate, as we do with all public authorities.”