Headlines: May 25th, 1999

The right to information held by public sector bodies will be given to all UK citizens, Home Secretary Jack Straw has told the House of Commons. Mr Straw said the move would benefit patients who wanted to know why they had to wait for treatment, parents who sought information on schools’ selection procedures and citizens concerned with the conduct of police inquiries.

The Freedom of Information White Paper published in December 1997 said information should only be kept secret if it would cause “substantial harm”, but this phrase has been removed and replaced with “prejudice”. The crux of the draft Bill is the definition of “prejudice”. This switch disappointed freedom of information campaigners and drew scorn from the opposition.

The draft bill covers government departments, local councils, schools, the NHS and privatised industries providing public services. It also covers administrative aspects of criminal investigations, following a row at the Commons Public Administration Committee. It does not cover Cabinet meetings, briefings to ministers by civil servants and correspondence between government departments. The estimated cost of implementing freedom of information legislation will be between £90m and £125m a year.

To obtain information, members of the public will have to pay a set fee of about £10, but authorities will have the discretion to charge up to 10% of the marginal cost of locating the relevant data – plus fees for copying and postage. If access to information follows the United States model it will be possible to complete a form on the Internet which will trigger a letter to the official who holds the information. However, every public authority will have to specify what types of information it publishes or intends to publish, the manner of publication and whether or not a fee will be charged to applicants.

Examples of the sort of information which public bodies would have a duty to provide if asked:

•Police forces will have give out information about the conduct of inquiries, provided it does not prejudice law enforcement

•Schools will have to explain how they apply their admission criteria

•Health authorities will have to provide details of how they allocate resources between different patients

•The Prison Service will have to give information about performance of different jail regimes

•Hospitals and general practitioner doctors will have to explain how they prioritise their waiting lists

•National Health Service trusts and health authorities will have to provide information on their administrative procedures governing private finance initiative projects – the controversial partnerships with private companies which are increasingly being relied on to provide new hospitals.

The bill will not apply to the security services, the Secret Intelligence Service, the Government Communications Headquarters and the special forces.

An independent commissioner will rule on cases where organisations decline information requests. The consultation period on the draft bill will last until 12 July.