12 March 2004
Local authorities have 'not woken up to the scale of the challenge' presented by the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act due to come into force in 2005, according to the commissioner overseeing the changes.
The Information Commissioner's Office issued a stark warning to councils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that they 'must do more to get ready' for stricter FoI rules requiring councils to make more vital information and data available publicly.
It follows an ICO survey of councils in the three nations which found that many authorities do not have adequate mechanisms in place to evaluate public interest; have failed to identify FoI 'champions'; have not offered any FoI training to staff; and have yet to review data confidentiality clauses.
Under the new rules, the general public can delve deeper into the workings of local authorities and other public bodies. Requests for new information on, say, planning applications or environmental matters can be sent to any council department, which must pass on the details to the relevant senior members or officers at the authority and respond within 20 days.
That marks a significant change from current arrangements, which have been criticised as slow, cumbersome and selective. The Local Government Association has already warned its members that the Act will lead to 'more contentious requests' for information – possibly a reference to a new 'public interest' clause.
Phil Boyd, assistant commissioner at the ICO, said: 'With ten months to go before FoI, the clock is ticking for many local authorities. '[They] must make the shift from a “need to know” to a “right to know” culture and they must start now.'
The LGA this week issued guidance on how to deal with the new rules. Delivering freedom of information says 'authorities need to ensure that decision-making is not seen as secretive or unresponsive,' encouraging councils to engage with the public 'thereby gaining more trust'.
Commenting in the preface to the LGA's pamphlet, Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, writes: '[The legislation] is a direct challenge to cultures of unnecessary secrecy – in Whitehall and elsewhere. The Act will increase transparency and accountability at all levels of public life, promoting better administration.'