The Department of Health has become the first government department to be issued with a formal practice recommendation by the information commissioner after breaching the Freedom of Information Act.

The Information Commissioner's Office has told the DH to review the staffing and resource allocated to Freedom of Information requests following an audit of complaints.

The decision notice states: "The department has failed to offer appropriate advice and assistance to applicants, has failed to transfer requests appropriately, and is delaying the internal review process beyond a reasonable timescale."

Public authorities must conduct internal reviews within 20 working days, or 40 days in exceptional circumstances, but the department took 90 days in one case and 80 days in two other cases.

The DH has repeatedly applied blanket exemptions to FOI requests, in some cases withholding entire documents from release.

It has also been extending the timescale for consideration of the public interest test, exceeding the limits set out in guidance from the Information Commissioner's Office.

The practice recommendation follows the discovery in January that the DH had breached the act several times and could not find numerous documents filed between August 2003 and September 2004.

Failure to comply with a practice recommendation could result in an enforcement notice. In some cases, this could lead to an adverse comment in a report to Parliament by the commissioner.