Headlines: January 13th, 2006

Most public bodies believe the Freedom of Information Act has helped to create a culture of greater openness in the public sector and they list improved relations with the public among its benefits. The findings are from a survey carried out among 500 public authorities by the Information Commissioner’s Office as part of its review of the first year of the Act.Responses to the survey highlighted increased openness and transparency, better records management, improved accountability and improved relationships with the public as advantages of the legislation. Sixty per cent of organisations said they had released more information to the public as a result of the FOI.

The Information Commissioner’s Office dealt with 2,300 complaints during 2005 from members of the public about authorities refusing to release information. More than a thousand of these have been resolved informally or by negotiation and so far only 135 notices of formal decision have been issued.

The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, said the act was having a significant impact and was being taken seriously by most public authorities. The pendulum was, he said, swinging towards disclosure of information unless there was very good reason to do otherwise. “Governmental culture is starting to change. There is still a long way to go but I am encouraged by the range and significant number of disclosures we have seen so far,” he added.

He said important information clearly in the public interest had been released over the past 12 months and which, without the Act, would not have been in the public domain. Examples included details of politicians’ expenses, amounts and recipients of farm subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy and hospital mortality rates.

The ICO says local and central government account for the largest number of classified complaints, each accounting for more than a third of cases. The most common complaints related to section 1 of the Act, relating to the general right of access to information held by public authorities, and section 10, about the time a public authority took to comply with a request. The most common reason put forward by public authorities claiming exemption from the Act was that disclosure would breach someone’s personal privacy.

There had been an initial surge of complaints, reflecting the experience of public authorities at the start of 2005, and this had led to some delays with casework. The ICO says it has gained experience in dealing with FOI during 2005 and has recently instituted a series of new measures designed to help it deal more effectively with complaints. Mr Thomas said he was confident these changes and the office’s growing experience would help it to accelerate case handling procedures and improve productivity. Complex cases took longer to resolve but it had already closed more than a third of all cases and the closure rate continued to improve. Mr. Thomas said, “We are also discussing increased resources with the Department for Constitutional Affairs which will help us to deliver further improvements to our service. There is still some way to go, but the first year of the Freedom of Information Act in action has proved that people’s right to know how public authorities operate, make decisions and spend their money is being better served.”