The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, has astonished editors by defending the five-year deadline set for introducing open government under the new Freedom of Information Act passed by Parliament seven months ago.
Challenged this week to explain why open government legislation could not be implemented within a year, as in Canada, New Zealand and Ireland, Lord Irvine told peers the UK law was more extensive and that more people lived here.
His response came only a few weeks after he dismayed open government campaigners by disclosing that no timetable for implementation had yet been set, other than the act had to be fully implemented by 30 November, 2005, five years after it received royal assent, and that he had a legal duty to make a progress report by 30 November this year.
Open government campaigners, including editors, welcomed Tony Blair’s decision to transfer responsibility for implementing the act from the Home Office to the Lord Chancellor’s Department.
Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: "We always knew it was going to take time but when you get an answer like this from a senior minister who is in favour of FoI it shows the mountain we have to climb to change the culture." Satchwell is to meet Information Commissioner Elizabeth France later this month to discuss the timetable for implementing the act.
France says she wants government departments to comply by next April, and local councils the following year, but her timetable has yet to be officially approved. The General Election, and the transfer of responsibility from the Home Office, is believed to have delayed decisions by government.
Liberal Democrat peer Lord Lester stepped up the pressure on the Government in the House of Lords this week when he told Lord Irvine that Canada, New Zealand and Ireland had all introduced open government to central government departments within a year.
Lord Irvine told him that 60 million people lived in the UK compared to 3.6m in Ireland, 3.4m in New Zealand and 27m in Canada. "The equivalent legislation in Ireland was prospective only, unlike the UK act, and the legislation in Canada applies only to the federal government, which covers a narrower range of services than central government in the UK.
"The scale of the task of preparing central government in the UK for implementation of Freedom of Information is therefore significantly greater than that in Canada, New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland.
"The Information Commissioner also needs to increase significantly the staff complement of her office. The kind of people she needs to recruit to police the act effectively cannot simply be recruited overnight. She needs people with knowledge of the way the public sector works and with proper investigative and project management skills. All this takes time."
However, he assured Lord Lestor: "It is the Government’s intention to implement the Freedom of Information Act well within the statutory five years."
By David Rose