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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 January 2005, 01:39 GMT
Need-to-know is now right-to-know

Freedom of Information
By Lord Falconer of Thoroton
Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs

January 4 is the first working day of the Freedom of Information Act. And it marks the end of the old need-to-know culture of British government, argues the Cabinet minister overseeing the changes.

The first batch of information requests will have arrived at some of the 100,000 public authorities covered by the Freedom of Information Act today, the first working day of the legislation.

Some will have arrived by e-mail, others by fax or letter. More will arrive tomorrow, and more will arrive next week.

For the first time, people have the statutory right to ask Government departments, their local schools, hospitals, police forces and local authorities for information about a whole range of issues.

Parents will be able to ask for details of schools admission policies, where these have not already been published, and the amounts that individual schools spend on new text books.

People waiting for operations can inquire about patient waiting lists, or the bed capacity at their local hospital. They can ask about performance figures for their local authority recycling schemes.

Open government

Freedom of Information is not simply about providing individuals with a tool to prise information out of public bodies. This legislation heralds an important change in culture.

Governments need space to be able to reflect on policy options - Freedom of Information strikes a balance to allow access to information and to allow scope for private debate, discussion and dissent
Lord Falconer
Freedom of Information is about a more general shift to openness so that more and more information will be released before it is even requested.

And it is essential that all public authorities finally embrace openness.

Open Government can bring about a real change in the quality as well as the quantity of information in the public domain.

It can improve the quality, accuracy and completeness of the public debate. And most importantly, it means that the relationship between the Government and the people is strengthened.

From New Year's Day, the legislation has put in place a presumption of openness: a presumption that there is a general public interest in access to information.

From now on, individuals have the right to see a substantial amount of information held by government departments and thousands of other public bodies.

There are reports that your Government is engaged on a massive e-mail destruction binge in order to get round the law which you yourself passed - how hypocritical can you get?
Conservative leader Michael Howard's letter to the PM

And unless release of this information falls within certain well-defined and responsible exemptions, for example, to protect national security, individual privacy or the effective working of government, you will receive it.

In short, the need-to-know culture is gone. There is now a statutory right to know.

Under the legislation, all public authorities are required to maintain lists of the information they publish proactively, known as publication schemes.

For example, the NHS website now publishes information on the local rates of MRSA, the so-called 'superbug' infections in each local hospital.

And early in 2005, the Department of Transport will publish extensive information on the location of speed cameras and the impact they have had on casualty rates.

People will be able to read the facts and judge for themselves.

Striking a balance

But while Freedom of Information represents a wider culture change, there also needs to be balance.

A list of some of the bodies affected by FOI
100,000 bodies: Open to FOI requests
Information rightly will not be released if it could harm national security or it contains private information about individuals.

Also, Governments need space to be able to reflect on policy options.

Freedom of Information strikes a balance to allow access to information and to allow scope for private debate, discussion and dissent.

Even here, you can appeal against a decision to withhold information to an independent watchdog, the Information Commissioner. He can order the public authority to release the information.

Freedom of Information is here for the long-term and should be judged in the long-term.

It has been a bold move for any Government to take, and it may lead to some discomfort at the start. But we have only taken the first few steps on a long road.

The real test of success is not whether any one piece of information is disclosed or withheld.

The real test is whether there is a change in attitude across the public sector during the next few years, and whether communication between the state and its citizens is strengthened.

It is only in hindsight that we will then really be able to assess the significance of this legislation.


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