The Department of Health has been lambasted for the way it handles requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

It has become the only government department to receive a formal practice recommendation from the Information Commissioner's Office. This follows an audit of complaints that revealed the DH has repeatedly applied blanket exemptions to FOI requests, in some cases withholding entire documents from release.

The recommendation 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."

It orders the DH to review the staffing and resources given to freedom of information in order to improve request handling.

Under the statute, public bodies must respond to any requests for information within 20 working days. Internal reviews should be carried out within 20 working days, or 40 days in exceptional circumstances, yet the department took 90 days in one case and 80 days in two others.

The ICO carried out the audit of 40 complaints after issuing the DH with a decision notice in January relating to an FOI request for information about an NHS electronic recruitment service.

The DH did not respond adequately to the request and appeared to have lost numerous documents filed between August 2003 and September 2004, the ICO said.

HSJ has also experienced problems in obtaining information held by the DH. The department took 56 working days to answer an FOI request relating to the DH's commercial directorate, finally providing the information in January. A second request last November about a senior civil servant took 69 working days.

Two weeks ago, information commissioner Richard Thomas took the unusual step of warning the NHS to comply with FOI legislation after Hounslow primary care trust was threatened with High Court action for breaching the act.

A DH spokeswoman said the department fully accepted the criticisms and was making every effort to improve its performance.

"The DH takes its responsibilities under information rights legislation very seriously, and aims to provide timely replies both to initial requests and requests for internal reviews," she said.

"We work with a presumption of openness, which the FOI unit and the customer services centre FOI team encourage through the advice they offer to policy colleagues dealing with individual requests."

More than 93 per cent of initial requests were met within the time allowed between July and September last year and staff have been taking part in knowledge management workshops, she added.