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Public bodies 'not ready' for Freedom of Information

Some public bodies are unlikely to be ready for all the demands of the new Freedom of Information Act when it becomes law in the New Year, according to a parliamentary report.

The idea was that all authorities should open up to requests for information on the same day.

And while progress has been made in Whitehall departments, a report from the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee seems to back up concerns that further away from the centre of government, progress has not been as good. The health sector and some local authorities are expected to struggle to meet the deadline.

The act allows any member of the public – including the press – to inquire what information public bodies hold on a topic, and request that the information is handed over. Requests must be in writing and the authority will be required to respond within 20 days.

Society of Editors director Bob Satchwell said: “Journalists and editors have to help make it work rather than say it’s not working and not bother. It is important we do not dismiss the act just because people are not ready.

“Let’s get everyone up to speed and get everyone being more open. We should make it an educational process, rather than a ‘speed camera’ attitude to those lagging behind.

“This is a huge change from a culture of secrecy to one of openness.

“And the Freedom of Information Act is just part of the answer to what we want to achieve.”

But he added that there had been a lot of publicity about the act, and public bodies had their own umbrella organisations, training and legal bodies to help them through the change.

The select committee report blames the Department of Constitutional Affairs for failing to provide sufficient guidance and chairman Alan Beith said he hoped remaining hurdles would be ironed out in time.

He said: “The department has had four years to prepare for Freedom of Information but with less than a month to go it appears that some bodies may not be well enough prepared.

“Freedom of Information is not an optional extra that public bodies can sign up to if they want to – it is a legal obligation that they must be ready for.”

The Local Government Association said the level of readiness was “considerable” in the “vast majority” of councils. Hospitals are expected to be ready although under-pressure family doctors are less prepared. Police and school are thought to be ready for the demands of the act.

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