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Last Updated: Monday, 13 February 2006, 10:59 GMT
Info watchdog 'needs more staff'
Interview
By Ollie Stone-Lee
BBC News political reporter

Richard Thomas
Richard Thomas is in "delicate" talks with Lord Falconer
The freedom of information watchdog wants more resources to cope with the backlog of complaints about government bodies failing to reveal their files.

Richard Thomas says openness laws have had an "irreversible impact" on Britain's "obsession with secrecy".

But he has only ruled on half of the 2,600 complaints last year and wants more staff to speed up the process.

Mr Thomas also says people have become more aware of the danger Britain could "sleepwalk to a surveillance society".

As information commissioner, he warned of that risk in 2004, pointing to the possible results of the national identity cards register and other ways of collecting information.

Technology risks

Two years on, there are more CCTV cameras , systems for automatically recognising car number plates are being introduced and in London details of people's journeys on public transport made with Oyster travel cards are stored for two months.

But speaking to the BBC News website, Mr Thomas says he believes the UK has not become a surveillance society.

"Undoubtedly, technology and the growth in the amount of information being collected does present risks," he says.

CCTV camera
Mr Thomas is anxious to prevent a "surveillance society"

"But one thing I'm really quite pleased about is now there is a much greater awareness of the issues.

"Those who want to collect information and want to share it are much more alive now to the risks of getting it wrong... in terms of alienating the public, losing trust."

He says the Department of Health, for example, is almost as concerned as he is on getting electronic health records right.

Mr Thomas says the change can have "fantastic benefits" for sharing information between GPs and hospitals, but there are "colossal" risks too, including unauthorised access.

The health records illustrate the kind of balance he is trying to achieve as the judge on data protection laws.

He also has some concern about DNA from people who come into contact with police, but who are not charged or convicted, being kept in a database - although he is not making any "public comment".

Identity cards

Mr Thomas hit the headlines when he warned that the database behind the controversial identity cards scheme risked "unnecessary and disproportionate intrusion" into people's privacy.

The ID cards Bill is back before Parliament but Mr Thomas says he is keeping a deliberately low profile as it is not his job to play an active part in parliamentary debates.

He says the government did listen to his call for the purposes of the register to be clearly spelt out.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke with an ID card
MPs vote on ID cards again on Monday

But asked whether people should know what he thinks of changes to plans he dubbed last year as excessive, he replies: "The bill hasn't really changed very much."

He expects to be heavily involved in the detail of the regulations if Parliament passes the laws to set up the ID scheme.

"A lot of these issues, the devil's in the detail," he says.

Where he certainly does play an active part is as judge on the freedom of information (FOI) laws which came into force last January.

The laws enable people to ask to see documents from more than 115,000 public bodies, including Whitehall departments.

Mr Thomas has to rule on disputes about whether some files are covered by exemptions allowed in the laws - such as national security, commercially sensitivity or advice on policy making.

In the first 12 months there were more than 100,000 requests for information.

Taking longer than expected

Mr Thomas has closed the files on about 1,300 of the complaints about government departments, councils and other organisations failing to release the information.

But he has a backlog of another 1,300 still to conclude, something which has caused concern among MPs on the Commons constitutional affairs committee, which is investigating how the laws have worked.

REVEALED UNDER FOI LAWS
Dentists earning up to 250,000 a year in NHS fees
Death rates for operations by heart surgeons
"Dog muck" hotspots in Shropshire
Inspection reports on restaurants
Casualty figures in Iraq
"Profits" made through speed cameras
School attempts to manipulate their standing in exam tables
The cost of Cherie Blair's chauffeur-driven car
How the Tate Gallery bought works from one of its trustees

"Some of these cases are taking longer than I feel comfortable with," he says, explaining he has made changes to speed up the process.

"I am talking to the Department of Constitutional Affairs about increasing our resources. Obviously we've got to make best possible use of our existing resources but we have not got a huge amount - 29 case handlers."

Mr Thomas will not go into details about what he wants, saying it is a "delicate" issue.

But he particularly wants extra staff this year to get through the "initial surge" of requests. With more resources he hopes to get to a "steady state" by spring 2007.

Frivolous requests?

The commissioner met Constitutional Affairs Secretary Lord Falconer last week.

Lord Falconer has said he wants to clamp down on irresponsible requests, such as people asking how much government spends on toilet rolls or how many windows there are in the education department.

But Mr Thomas says he made a clear point to Lord Falconer, saying he said early on he would generally not force public bodies to meet mischievous requests which imposed unacceptable costs.

Filing cabinet
The public has asked to see thousands of hidden documents

"I'm really quite surprised that government departments are not making far greater use of the exclusion in the [Freedom of Information] act for vexatious requests," he says.

But Mr Thomas is positive about how the act has generally been used, citing media articles about everything from casualties to Iraq to performance rates for heart surgeons.

He has forced local councils to reveal the results of health inspections of restaurants.

He is pleased that "ordinary people", rather than journalists or pressure groups, have made the most requests.

And research suggesting that 86% of public bodies see the benefits of the new disclosure laws is a boost to his drive for officials to realise the laws should not just be seen as a burden.

"Undoubtedly the process of culture change has started. It has not yet finished."

'Tolerance'

There have been complaints that government departments have not met the deadline of answering requests within 20 workings days.

Mr Thomas says the majority of requests are being met, although in some cases later than the deadline.

"In the first year I have been fairly tolerant of that as everyone's been on a massive learning curve.

"And as long as I'm satisfied that the public authority is trying, if it needs perhaps to take some legal advice or because it's waiting for a third party to give its response... I won't be particularly hardline for the first couple of years."

His response marks out his determination to be effective by being selective in where he pursues cases, although critics would like him to do more.

But Mr Thomas is critical of the state in which disputed cases are handed to his office to make a judgement.

"The cases are substantially less well prepared when they come to us than we had expected and more complicated than we might have expected," he says.

Controversy to come

People making the requests can be "rather vague" about what information they actually want.

And notices refusing access to information can be "amateur", with reasons that do not stack up, even if the decision is justified.

Mr Thomas says he takes his role as an independent regulator - apart from the system he supervises - very seriously.

While initially rather a "one man band", albeit with an office behind him, he feels less "lonely" in his task now he has created a management board to help manage the system, although the buck stops with him.

That may prove useful as he acknowledges that more and more of the cases he will judge in the months to come will be unpopular with one side or the other.

"We will have some controversies about some of the decisions we make but I'm here to do my job...

"We cannot be bowed by considerations of popularity or unpopularity."

It could be a testing time for the watchdog charged with overseeing laws on both openness and privacy.




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