Commissioner holds key to success of Act

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The Independent Online
IT IS still too early to tell how well the Freedom of Information Act is working, and will be for some time. The Act has been in force for only a month. Some requests have been answered, but contentious ones were refused. Many applicants were told the authority needs more than the standard 20 working days for its reply. What does this tell us?

FOI is a deceptively slow process. A request that might take five minutes to draft may challenge a presumption of secrecy that has ruled for decades. If the Government's initial response is to say no, do not be surprised, but some of these walls are going to tumble. Just not on day one.

The real test of the Act is not what authorities reveal 20 days after a request, but what they are required to do after the Information Commissioner rules on complaints. The Act provides no explicit directions about what public bodies must release. Initially, authorities decide if disclosure would prejudice a particular interest or on balance be in the public interest - the Act's main tests. But these decisions are only temporarily in their hands. Challenged, it is the Commissioner who decides. Many early decisions will almost certainly be overturned.

Although the Act sets a 20-working-day response time, it also allows a "reasonable" extension where the public interest test has to be considered.

Applicants may not mind a short extra wait, if at the end of the day they get the information they want. But if authorities just take more time to say no, they are unlikely to be impressed.

But do not be put off from using the Act, and do not feel obliged to take no for an answer. The key is to make moderate, well-targeted requests, and be prepared to challenge unjustified refusals.

Maurice Frankel is director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. www.cfoi.org.uk

HOW TO GET INFORMATION

1. Resist the urge to ask for the most contentious information you can think of. You're more likely to walk into a barrage of exemptions than uncover the scandal of the century.

2. Make your request as specific as possible. If you know which documents you want, describe them.

3. Make your request as difficult to refuse as possible. First ask for the simplest factual information on your subject, even if you also ask for more elaborate information.

4. Authorities must give applicants reasonable advice and assistance. Many authorities have FOI officers who are willing to help.

5. If you don't know what information the authority holds on your topic, ask for a list of relevant document titles and choose from those.

For more information see www.cfoi.org.uk

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