Freedom Of Information: Watchdog targets government and public institutions

The dawn of the Freedom of Information age was supposed to bring a shift in government attitudes to secrecy. So why, asks Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, has the Information Commissioner made a call for greater disclosure?

Friday 13 June 2008 00:00 BST

Nearly 10,000 leaders of public bodies in England and Wales have been told they must help make Britain a more open society by releasing a greater amount of information to the public.

The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has written to all chief executives of local authorities, NHS trusts, police agencies and thousands of other organisations, urging them to disclose a range of information "as a matter of routine".

The decision to embark upon such a broad offensive is partly driven by the new Freedom of Information publication schemes which public bodies must have in place by the end of this year. But it will also serve as a timely reminder that three years after the introduction of the right-to-know laws in England and Wales, obfuscation and political censorship still present a huge obstacle to a truly open society.

More than a third of all requests to government departments and public bodies are refused in part or in whole and around a half of complaints concerning failed requests are upheld by the Information Commissioner.

This month, Mr Thomas told a Freedom of Information conference in London that public authorities must do more to disclose more information in a proactive way and eradicate unnecessary secrecy.

"Since FOI was introduced in January 2005 it has made a huge impact on public life," he said. "Freedom of Information means a presumption of openness, where secrecy must be reserved for situations when it really is necessary. Secrecy should not be the default position, whether in Whitehall or elsewhere."

He added: "I am pleased that more and more government departments, local authorities, police bodies, NHS organisations and other public authorities are seeing the benefits of greater transparency and disclosing official material as a matter of routine. I encourage all public authorities to see that transparency as the norm should result in improved administration and fewer requests."

Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 all public authorities must adopt and maintain a publication scheme identifying the types of information they publish, or intend to publish, and how that information is to be published.

Meanwhile, the work of the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) is being frustrated by chronic underfunding by central government. Since 2005 the ICO has received around 8,300 complaints about public authorities that have refused to release information and has closed just over 82 per cent of these cases.

The ICO has informally resolved almost half of FOI complaints and almost a thousand formal decision notices have been issued. But its overall caseload stands at 1,363.

After a cut in resources in 2007/08, the ICO's FOI funding has now increased again to £5.5m – the same level that was set in 2006/07. Mr Thomas hopes that the new funding will enable the ICO to continue to close more cases than it receives each month.

But without more money and more case officers to handle the most difficult cases, the spirit of the legislation is not being met. Some of the hardest cases, dealing with public complaints about refusals to release information on a range of issues, including the security costs for the Royal Family and documents relating to cabinet minutes, have waiting times of nearly two years.

Unless this backlog can be reduced quickly, the public will lose faith in its information watchdog.

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