They say …… we’ll see.

Press Release:

The Freedom of Information Act, which comes into full effect today, marks a radical change in the relationship between Government and the citizen – giving individuals for the first time the statutory right to see a massive amount of information held by Government departments and thousands of public bodies.

People have a right to information about the way decisions are made, and public money is spent, by more than 100,000 public authorities, including Government departments, schools, NHS Trusts, police forces and local authorities.

Anyone, of any nationality, and living anywhere in the world, will be able to make a written request for information, and expect a response within 20 working days. For the majority, there will be no charge.

Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs Lord Falconer said:

“The introduction of the Freedom of Information Act is a major achievement. For too long, UK has lagged behind many other countries which implemented Freedom of Information years ago.

“We have caught up with other countries, and, in many cases, we have overtaken them. We have studied the experience of other countries to enable us to introduce one of the most generous Freedom of Information regimes in the world.

“The need to know culture has been replaced by a statutory right to know. Previously invisible information will become visible.

“I am convinced that the laws which take effect today will make Government more open, and the balances we have built into the system, will ensure that effectiveness is not compromised. Good Government is open Government, and good Government is effective Government.

“Our long-term goal is strengthen the link between the state and the citizen, and it will be many years before we can make a realistic assessment, but I am confident we will look back on this day with pride.”

Public authorities have already published details of the types of information which will be released proactively on websites – far more will be available on request.

The far-reaching legislation will lead to factual material behind decisions being made by the Government and public bodies shared with the public for the first time.

As well as introducing a statutory right to know the legislation also heralds an important change of culture towards official information for all public authorities.

Notes to Editors

1. Further information about the Freedom of Information can be found at: http://www.foi.gov.uk

2. About 100,000 public authorities are subject to the Act. A full list of types of public body: http://www.foi.gov.uk/coverage.htm

3. The Freedom of Information Act was passed on 30 November 2000. Full text: http://www.legislation.hmso.gov.uk/acts/acts2000/20000036.htm

4. The Freedom of Information Act was a 1997 manifesto commitment and followed the Government White Paper Your Right to Know: http://www.archive.official-documents.co.uk/document/caboff/foi/foi.htm

5. The independent Information Commissioner monitors and supervises the implementation of the Act. Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO): http://www.informationcommissioner.gov.uk

If disagreements arise, which could concern the amount charged, the time taken to respond or whether an exemption has been properly applied, the ICO arbitrates. The ICO could either support the public authority’s decision or request it to take steps to comply with the legislation. If a public authority fails to comply, the ICO will notify the High Court, which will deal with it as if it had committed a contempt of court. Both the complainant and the public authority have a right to appeal to the Information Tribunal and thereafter, on a point of law only, to the courts. When the ICO and a public authority dispute whether an exemption has been correctly applied to retain information ‘in the public interest’ a department can issue a ‘Ministerial veto.’ However, this will be subject to judicial review and will be reported to Parliament by the ICO for scrutiny by MPs and peers.

6. Personal Information is still covered by the Data Protection Act 1998, which came into effect on 1 March 2000: http://www.legislation.hmso.gov.uk/acts/acts1998/19980029.htm

7. For more information about exemptions see: http://www.hmso.gov.uk/acts/acts2000/00036–e.htm#21

8. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 applies to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. See the Scottish Executive website for The Freedom of Information Act Scotland 2002: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Government/FOI

9. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 will supersede the Code of Practice on Access to Public Information, introduced in 1994, and those parts of the Public Records Acts (1958 and 1967) which relate to rights of access to public records.

10. There will be no charge for requests which cost central government less than £600 to answer (£450 for the rest of the public sector). Where costs exceed this, the public body can help the requester reformulate the request, so that it falls within this limit. It can also decline the request, provide the information at full cost or provide the information and waive the fee. For more details about fees: http://www.dca.gov.uk/foi/feeguidesum.htm

T 020 7210 8512/8513 F 020 7210 8633 E press.office@dca.gsi.gov.uk

http://www.dca.gov.uk

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Earlier info and article of interest

The Freedom of Information Act has now come into force from 1st Jan 2005.

Before you read the following. I think this paragraph should catch your attention

The FOI Act is only part of the new openness package. Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs), which implement an EU directive, come into force at the same time. These provide a more powerful right to information about pollution, conservation, the natural environment, land use, road building, genetically modified organisms, air and water-borne diseases, food contamination and many other issues. The regulations include the utilities and private contractors acting on behalf of a public authority.

GOOD EH?

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

The Freedom of Information Act comes into force next month. At last we’ll be able to find out what the officials have been hiding, says Maurice Frankel

Tuesday December 14, 2004

The Guardian

http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/story/0,,1373016,00.html

On January 1, the long-awaited Freedom of Information Act finally comes into force. The act gives the public important new rights to the information held by public authorities. Worried about possible changes to your local school or hospital? The act should allow you to see the evidence for them. Want to know whether the police are doing enough about burglaries? Use the legislation to probe their response times and clear-up rates. Unhappy about a regulatory body that never seems to do anything when people complain? Ask for its internal guidance on handling complaints and see if its staff are doing what they’re supposed to do.

The FOI Act is only part of the new openness package. Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs), which implement an EU directive, come into force at the same time. These provide a more powerful right to information about pollution, conservation, the natural environment, land use, road building, genetically modified organisms, air and water-borne diseases, food contamination and many other issues. The regulations include the utilities and private contractors acting on behalf of a public authority.

Amendments to the Data Protection Act also come into force in January, improving your rights to see personal data held about you by public authorities, though not the private sector. You can already see computerised personal data and your own medical, social work, housing and children’s school records. But other records are available only if held in a structured form that allows specific information to be located easily. That restriction is now removed, allowing you to see “unstructured” information too.

Some 100,000 public authorities are subject to the new FOI regime, which covers government departments, local authorities, NHS bodies (including individual GPs, pharmacists, dentists and opticians), schools, colleges and universities, the police, the armed forces, museums, quangos, regulators, advisory bodies, publicly owned companies, the devolved assemblies and parliament itself – but not the security and intelligence services or the courts. Scotland has its own FOI Act (which covers the Scottish executive and Scottish public bodies – the UK act covers everything else) and EIRs, which also kick in on January 1.

Using the laws couldn’t be simpler. Send a letter, email or fax to the authority describing the information you want. If you want photocopies, or prefer to have information emailed or to inspect it in person, say so. The authority must complywhere practicable. Send your request to the FOI officer, whose contact details should be on the authority’s website, or directly to the official who handles the matter, if you know who that is. You don’t even have to mention the FOI Act or EIRs, though it’s safer to do so. The authority has to treat any written request for information under the right legislation, whether or not you ask it to. If you’re after environmental information, even a telephone request will count, though putting it writing is still a good idea.

You can ask for any recorded information held by the authority, regardless of when it was recorded. Old government files, which until now have been secret for 30 years, will have to be disclosed, subject to the act’s exemptions.

Make your request as specific as possible. Work out as clearly as you can what it is you want or think might exist. Don’t be afraid to phone the authority and ask what kind of material it holds. Both the act and the EIRs require authorities to provide reasonable advice and assistance to people who make requests.

The authority must reply to your request “promptly” and in any case within 20 working days. Under the UK act, this can be extended for a “reasonable” period where decisions are taken under the act’s public interest test. Extensions are allowed for requests received by schools during the holidays, for closed files held by the National Archives, or for information held overseas or that has to be obtained from military personnel on active service. These don’t apply to the EIRs, where the only permitted extension is for complex, large requests when up to 40 working days is allowed.

As long as your FOI request isn’t too sweeping, you won’t have to pay anything, apart from photocopying, printing and postage costs. However, if the cost of finding and extracting the information you want exceeds a set limit, the authority doesn’t have to provide it at all.

For government departments, this limit is £600, equivalent to three and a half days’ work at a set rate of £25 an hour. For other bodies it is £450, or two and a half days’ work. A £600 limit also applies in Scotland, though the first £100 of all charges, including photocopying, are waived and you pay only £1.50 an hour for staff time. Crucially, the time spent deciding whether to release information can’t be included in any of these calculations. There are no cost limits under the EIRs. So if the information you want is environmental, be sure to point this out.

You won’t be able to split a large request into several smaller ones to avoid the limit. The costs of related requests to a single authority within 60 working days of each other can be aggregated under the UK act (though not in Scotland). This is still a generous deal compared with some countries. Ireland’s FOI legislation allows a fee of up to £500 for information that would be free under the UK act.

The FOI act contains plenty of exemptions. Information is exempt if its disclosure would be likely to prejudice (or in Scotland “prejudice substantially”) interests such as defence, international relations, law enforcement, commercial interests, the economy, the frankness of internal discussions or the “effective conduct of public affairs”. However, most exempt information will have to be released if the public interest in disclosure is greater than the public interest in confidentiality. The benefits of disclosure, in protecting public safety, exposing wrongdoing, preventing the public from being misled, accounting for public spending or ensuring informed debate may swing decisions in favour of openness.

Some exemptions have no “prejudice” test and disclosure depends solely on the public interest test. These include exemptions for legal advice, information obtained during investigations by the police or prosecuting authorities and information relating to the formulation of government policy. This doesn’t mean you won’t get such information: the public interest test will still apply. Expect no access at all to court records, information about the security services or information whose disclosure is prohibited by other laws. Personal information about others won’t be released if disclosure would breach the Data Protection Act. Information whose disclosure would be a breach of confidence is exempt, but this involves a public interest test. The EIR exemptions are different and fewer – and all subject to the public interest test. One notable feature is that emissions data cannot be withheld on commercial confidentiality grounds.

If you are refused information, the authority should tell you under which exemption and why it thinks disclosure is not in the public interest. The first step in challenging a decision is to complain to the authority itself, which should review it at a more senior level. It’s not your job to prove that the information should be disclosed. Say why you think the decision is wrong, if you can, but a simple request for it to be reconsidered will be enough.

After that you can complain to the information commissioner. His decisions are legally binding and authorities that ignore them could face action for contempt of court. Under the UK act, though not Scotland’s, there is a right of appeal against the commissioner’s decisions, to an information tribunal. All decisions can be challenged in court on a point of law.

Unfortunately that’s not the end of the story. The legislation’s most contentious feature is a ministerial veto, allowing cabinet ministers to override the commissioner if he orders a government department to release information on public interest grounds. Scottish ministers have a slightly more limited power of veto over Scotland’s commissioner. The veto’s use can’t be kept secret and could be judicially reviewed. But no one is putting any bets on the likelihood of ministers resisting its use where politically damaging information is at stake.

Don’t let that put you off asking and don’t give up after an initial refusal. Public authorities are likely to be forced into much greater openness by the act. No one yet knows where the line will be drawn – it’s up to you to find out.

· Maurice Frankel is director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. For further information see www.cfoi.org.uk

http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/story/0,,1373016,00.html

and, other good sources on the BBC site at:

BBC NEWS Magazine Your right to know Your chance to know

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4096563.stm

BBC NEWS Magazine Your right to know

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4096313.stm

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