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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 July, 2003, 00:00 GMT 01:00 UK
Will it end Britain's culture of secrecy?

By Mark Davies
BBC News Online political reporter

It seems an enticing prospect. Just click the link on the Department of Health's website for a run-down of the NHS board's most recent meeting.

There might be a story in it. A juicy titbit. An amazing revelation.

Sadly not. Only the briefest details of the meeting on 27 February this year are revealed, including the following illuminating entry under 'Performance': "The prospects for the end of year were discussed."

Disappointing perhaps, but it does represent progress of a kind. The requirement to publish details of such meetings comes under the Freedom of Information Act, which comes into full force in January 2005.

The act has series of exemptions covering workings of Whitehall
The act will, according to the government, usher in a new period of openness in government and beyond, with public bodies under an obligation to release information about big decisions and recruitment procedures, among other things.

People should, in theory, be able to find out why their child was refused a place at their school of choice, check out how police officers investigated the burglary at their home or investigate the reasoning behind their long wait on a hospital waiting list.

Even when we do get stuff there are pages and pages blacked out due to 'commercial confidentiality'
Paul Dainton
Campaigner

Lord Filkin, the minister overseeing the implementation of the legislation, says it will "deliver real benefits to the public in improvements to public services and a strengthening relationship between government and the public".

The UK will be shaping up to become as open and transparent as the likes of Sweden, where access to correspondence between Prime Minister Goran Persson and other world leaders is available simply by popping into his office.

Not optimistic

But campaigners for more openness in Whitehall and beyond are not that optimistic.

They complain the legislation has too many exemptions and gives ministers too much power to veto the release of certain information.

As the legislation - seen as having been watered down compared to the initial White Paper in 1997 - made its way through parliament, Labour MP Mark Fisher described it as "an amazing defensive edifice for the government...a virtually impregnable fortress".

Campaigners on grassroots issues up and down the UK, from a waste site in Wakefield to a phone mast in Winchester, are perhaps less pessimistic.

Though hardly filled with hope, they complain that at present they feel thwarted in their attempts to prise information from public bodies.

Paul Dainton, who is campaigning against a landfill site in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, says his efforts are constantly frustrated by an apparent reluctance to release information.

"Even when we do get stuff there are pages and pages blacked out due to 'commercial confidentiality'. It's a big part of the battle," he said.

Retrospective

The government is hopeful the new act will make a difference when it is introduced in 2005.

But with a series of "exempt categories" in the legislation protecting the release of information in Whitehall, such as that covering the security services, campaigners expect the act to be most effective in terms of the duties it imposes on public bodies.

Much of the information made available will be done so free of charge, but organisations will be able to charge for the release of information following specific requests.

The act covers education, health, the police and local government. It is also retrospective - while documents will still be released every 30 years as at present, they could be published earlier if the information is not covered by one of the act's exemptions.

Vow

"Publication schemes" are being rolled out to show what information public bodies must make available - and those who fail to do can be reported to a new Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas.

In 2005 the commissioner will be able to order organisations to release documents.

The public will be entitled to know how people in top jobs in the police, armed forces, the BBC, the civil service and judiciary were recruited and appointed.

What we are saying is that it might not be a sudden release of information, but keep trying - you will have a good chance of getting something if you keep going
Campaign for Freedom of Information
The reasons behind key decisions by bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive, Customs and Excise and the Parole Board will have to be revealed, while details of police files over incidents such as the Hillsborough disaster or Brixton riots could also be released.

Lord Filkin has vowed to report on the progress towards implementing the act in November 2003.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information is concerned that little progress has been made, though a spokesman acknowledged the process is being stepped up.

A campaign spokeswoman said: "In terms of how the act is going to work, our view is that it is going to depend on how the information commissioner interprets the public interest test and how regularly the government is prepared to veto the commissioner."

The campaign believes the number and range of exemptions - and the ability to veto the release of information - should be narrowed.

Opportunities

But it is also hopeful that, with the act forcing around 80,000 public authorities to release information - and the right of appeal - it will make a difference.

Files on cases such as the Hillsborough disaster could be revealed
The campaign plans to highlight those authorities meeting their obligations under the act in order to put pressure on those failing to do so.

"The act is not as good as the white paper, but there are opportunities and we are going to have to wait and see how it is enforced," said the spokeswoman.

"One of the problems at the moment is the lack of awareness about what people have a right to see.

"Under the act, any request for information is deemed to be a request under the act even if people are unaware of the act. That is an important change.

"What we are saying is that it might not be a sudden release of information, but keep trying - you will have a good chance of getting something if you keep going."




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