Long-overdue Freedom of Information request responses prompt Sussex Police apology

Sussex Police has apologised after twice failing in its legal duty by leaving this newspaper waiting months for information it was entitled to.

The law usually requires the force to respond to Freedom of Information requests within 20 working days.

Dr James Walsh

Dr James Walsh

But requests linked to our investigation into digital forensics – Read more here – took 108 and 178 working days for a response – the latter of which prompted a complaint to the Information Commissioner.

The second FOI was submitted in January this year, with a reply sent in September.

James Walsh, Arun District Council leader and former chairman of the Sussex Police Authority, said: “This is extremely disturbing, and unfortunately it feeds the notion that the police are rather hostile to openness and transparency in their dealings with the press and media generally.”

The force blamed ‘human error’ in monitoring and ‘lack of communication between departments’ for the delays.

It said 1,220 requests had been made in 2019 alone, with 84 per cent replied to on time.

But its response rate fell below the Information Commissioner’s target of 90 per cent for police forces – and represented a drop on the 89 per cent figure reported at a performance meeting a year ago.

A police spokesman said the force was committed to ‘substantially improving that figure’, with a new system and two new caseworkers nearing completion of their training.

Referring to this newspaper’s requests, police noted there were cases when the 20-day limit could be extended – and claimed this was relevant, despite admitting this did not apply to the two cases.

The spokesman said: “Openness and transparency are our keywords in responding to FOI requests.

“While every effort is made to meet statutory deadlines, there is a provision in the Act which does allow for extension of deadlines when it is necessary to consider exemptions for information over which there are public interest tests we are required to consider.

“While this was not the case with the two specific requests it is a factor that has to be taken into account, especially at this time of an increase in the number and complexity of requests.”

READ MORE: How our research uncovered wider concerns with criminal justice system