Headlines: November 5th, 2004

Schools are to get more time to respond to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act when it comes into force in the New Year. An order laid before Parliament will also give extensions to the armed forces in some circumstances.The Act comes into effect on January 1st and will impose on all Government departments and more than 100,000 other public authorities, including local councils, police forces and NHS Trusts, a duty to respond within 20 working days to requests made for information about their decisions and how they are reached.

This new order, though, effectively allows extensions to the 20 day limit in permitting schools not to count school holidays when calculating their response times. This will apply to governing bodies of all maintained schools and nursery schools and schools maintained by the Ministry of Defence.

The Information Commissioner will also have discretion to extend the time-limit to up to 60 working days if a public authority is unable to meet the normal deadline because it needs to get information from someone involved in a military operation, or in preparations for a military operation or in cases where the authorty needs to ask for information from abroad, including from foreign governments or its own staff.

In a further easing of the strict time limit, the National Archives, based at Kew, will be given up to 30 days to respond to a request in cases involving a transferred public record that has not been designated as open information and where it needs to determine whether the information being asked for is exempt from the provisions of the new legisaltion.

The Information Rights Minister, Baroness Cathy Ashton, said it was right that schools should be allowed to take account of holidays as there would not be staff around around to pick up requests, especially during the long summer break. “The military will also need some leeway, as retrieving information from the armed forces on operations around the world will not always be straightforward,” she added.

But she said the government did not expect the extension to be used in every case involving the armed forces, or where there was a need to consult abroad, it was simply recognisng that on occasions it would not be practical to meet the 20-day deadline.