Headlines: October 19th, 2004

Most requests which will be made under the new Freedom of Information Act will be free of charge, the Government has announced. Lord Falconer, the Constitutional Affairs Secretary, said they did not want cost to be a factor in putting off people from seeking the information they required.The decision means that for information which costs public bodies less than 450 pounds to retrieve and collate, there will be no charge. That figure is roughly equivalent to two and a half days of work that a public body will be doing for free. Government departments will only be able to charge where costs rise above 600 pounds, or about three and a half days work.

From the New Year people will have the right to ask for information about the way decisions are made and how public money is spent by more than a hundred thousand bodies, including local councils, government departments, police forces, NHS trusts and schools. Under the act, anyone of any nationality and living anywhere in the world will be able to make a written request for information, and expect a response within 20 working days. Many public authorities have already given details of information that will be made available proactively on websites and much more information will be available on request. Material which could be released in response to requests covers all recorded information and includes paper files, computer files, internal e-mails, audio and video recordings, brochures and photographs.

Lord Falconer, said the act was an important part of constitutional reform and had been introduced to change the culture of official information. For that reason the government believed access to information should be free. ” A fees structure which is simple to understand and easy to operate follows the spirit of the legislation,” he said. The government did not want cost to deter people from asking about the policy discussions which influenced their children’s education, the way hospitals treated and cared for their patients or the way the police patrolled their streets. The long-term aim of greater scrutiny and dialogue was to improve decision-making, he added.