The Freedom of Information Act, which came into effect today, will radically alter the relationship between those who provide public services and the public at large. The Act applies to all public bodies including Government departments, local authorities, NHS bodies which embraces hospitals and doctor’s surgeries, schools colleges, universities and the police.The fundamental change resulting from the Act is that all public bodies must disclose virtually any information to anyone who demands it. The exceptions relate to such things as advice to ministers and matters concerning the security services. This wide sweeping disclosure requirement contrasts with the Data Protection Act under which only individuals could obtain information about themselves. See Publicnet Briefing 24 January 2001 about the way the Channel Four political satirist Mark Thomas put in a standard ‘subject access’ request to the DTI and received a batch of more or less abusive emails revealing officials had attempted to “starve him of information”.
The effect of the new Act is that internal minutes, notes of meetings and correspondence revealing how decisions were reached and who made them will be open to scrutiny. The disclosure requirement applies to e-mails as well as to hard copy documents. The private sector will also be affected as public bodies will have to disclose the identity of companies bidding for contracts and the price of the winning contract.
Compliance will be staged over the next four years with different groups of public bodies coming within the scope of the Act in stages and a compliance timetable will be published in March 2001. A prime requirement of the Act is that public bodies must produce publication schemes detailing how they intend to publish the different classes of information they hold. A model publication scheme will be published in April 2001.
The Information Commissioner, Elizabeth France, who until yesterday was the Data Protection Commissioner, has urged public bodies to begin to plan the process of adapting to the requirements of the Act in order to ensure a smooth transmission.
A former senior civil servant commenting on the impact of the Act said: “It’s not the volume of requests for information that will bring a culture change. Rather it’s the constant threat that anyone at any time might demand disclosure. Its like a game of chess, the threat of a move gives a player the power, not the move itself. The Act will bring a massive shift in the balance of power, away from people working in the public sector and towards the citizen.”