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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 December 2004, 00:35 GMT
Preparing for new information law
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Public bodies will have the right to charge for providing information

An all-party committee of MPs says it is "not confident" many public bodies will be ready for the Freedom of Information Act. So what have they done to prepare themselves for the changes, due to come into force next month?

The Campaign for Freedom of Information sees preparation for the new act as "a mixed picture".

A spokeswoman said: "The [committee of] MPs think the central government departments are fairly well prepared but when you get further from the centre it becomes more patchy."

THE NEW ACT
The public authority must say if it has information requested
If it does, applicants have the right to be told that information
All requests must be in writing
Authority must respond within 20 working days
Authorities have right to charge for providing information

The act comes into effect in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, on 1 January while similar measures are being brought in at the same time in Scotland.

A spokesman for the Department for Constitutional Affairs acknowledged there was still work to be done but said public bodies would have no-one to blame but themselves if they were caught unawares by the introduction of the act.

"Public authorities have had four years to prepare for this," he said.

"Really the implementation of the new law should come as no surprise to them."

He said it would be difficult to gauge how well different bodies were equipped to deal with new questions about data until "requests come in and have failed to be met".

But has there been enough preparation work in the public services for the new act?

CENTRAL GOVERNMENT

It was acknowledged by the committee that central government departments were well prepared.

The government has detailed policies and guidance in place across all departments.

The DCA spokesman said it "welcomed the committee's acknowledgement".

The Campaign for Freedom of Information spokeswoman said central government was "more prepared anyway" because of the introduction of the Open Government code of practice in 1994.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT

A spokesman for the Local Government Association said it was confident that in "the vast majority of our councils" the level of readiness for the new act was "considerable".

"Councils are already the most open public bodies and we are confident that our authorities will continue to work hard to embrace this culture of openness, and meet information access legislation," she said.

But while local councils were well prepared, the spokeswoman said the 20 day deadline for responding to enquiries could prove to be a challenge in rare cases because some requests could cross several services.

NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE

The National Health Service is hopeful hospitals, trusts and other bodies are ready for the change in law.

A preparation campaign has provided education on the changes to staff.

However, a spokeswoman for the Royal College of General Practitioners acknowledged GPs were not "particularly well prepared" for the new act because of other pressures.

She cited the start of new contracts for surgeries and pressure to conform to the Disability Discrimination Act by 1 October.

But GPs would nevertheless "embrace the changes," she added.

EDUCATION

As part of preparation work for schools, the Department for Education and Skills has produced guidance to help head teachers, staff and governing bodies to deal with requests for information.

But a spokeswoman for the National Union of Teachers said the new act would have no real bearing on schools anyway.

She said: "Access to pupils' records of achievements is already open and has been for many years.

"Teachers employment records have also been open for a very long time and so I don't think the act has an impact on schools."

POLICE

The police service was also said by the committee to be in "an advanced state of preparedness" for implementation of the act.

A spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers said implementation of the act had been a two-year project.

As well as producing guidance, Acpo had also trained more than 300 "decision makers".

"Chief police officers have also taken the moral high ground and will publish, from the outset, their annual expenses," the spokesman added.


SEE ALSO:
'Few ready' for information act
07 Dec 04 |  UK Politics
People 'unsure' of new data law
04 Oct 04 |  Scotland
What does the state know about us?
27 Apr 04 |  Magazine


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