Headlines: August 13th, 2004

The rush by public bodies to install technology to meet requirements of the Freedom of Information Act has yet to start. When the Act comes into force in January 2005 government departments, councils, police and health services will have to disclose information within 20 days, providing there is no specific exclusion preventing disclosure.A survey by Comino found that only 17 per cent of Local Authorities have set aside budgets to implement new electronic systems that would simplify the search for information. Another survey by ZyLAB has revealed a third of public sector bodies believe their internal information handling systems will struggle to implement the new legislation.

There are also indications of unpreparedness for the cultural impact of opening filing cabinets to the gaze of the public. Citizens will be able to monitor what civil servants, council officials and other are doing on their behalf. Also, as decision-making processes will be made clearer to the public, the sector will become more accountable and responsive. Although public bodies are generally slow to recognize the full impact of this change, one central department has told its staff they should assume that all documents and e-mails they write will be disclosed.

Suppliers of goods and services will also be affected by the new legislation. Although the Act does provide for disclosure of commercial information to be restricted in certain circumstances, work has been going on for some time to revise contracts making this the exception, rather than the rule. The issue is complicated by the law of contract, intellectual property rights and the Common Law of Confidence. A survey of central government departments by the Information Commissioner found that work on revising contracts to remove confidentiality clauses is progressing slowly.