Slow response to code on freedom of information

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Very few people applied for Whitehall secrets in the first year of the Government's freedom of information code, probably because not many people know the code is there, the Parliamentary Ombudsman told MPs yesterday.

It was introduced to forestall demands for a freedom of information Act similar to those in the US and several Commonwealth countries.

Under the code, public bodies are expected to answer requests for information from members of the public within six weeks, and if they are not satisfied with the response, they can complain to the ombudsman, William Reid.

He said 15 extra staff had been added to his office to deal with the anticipated number of complaints.

Many had been redeployed to other work because they were not needed, he said. Each government department has appointed on liaison staff to handle requests under the code, and these are likely to be similarly under- employed.

Mr Reid told the Commons select committee which monitors his work: "There have been surprisingly few complaints to judge by other countries."

The code came into force on 1 April, and there have been 41 complaints, of which only 11 were legitimate for him to take up.

"I believe these figures are only the tip of the iceberg," he told the MPs. If demand had been the same per head of population as in the first year under freedom of information Acts in Canada and Australia, there would have been about 1,000 inquiries.

In Canada, there were the equivalent of 5,000 complaints in the first year.

He said he did not know why he had received so few complaints. It was possible that original inquiries were being dealt with speedily and to the satisfaction of the applicant, but he doubted it.

He speculated that the national debate which preceded an Act being passed in these countries had given a "rocket-like" boost to demand from the start.

In Britain, the code had not been advertised, and Mr Reid said:"More needs to be done to make it known."

The Conservative MP Andrew Hargreaves suggested the lack of questions might mean there was no desire for official information among ordinary people.

Mr Reid replied: "I totally disagree. Her Majesty's Government said there was a need for this."

He believed that there was still a culture of secrecy in Whitehall, which was changing faster in some departments than others.

The Cabinet Office, which monitors the open government code, said last night it had no figures for the number of inquiries to other public bodies. It is due to publish a report next week on the workings of the code in its first year.

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