Frankel: officers must be ready
The long-awaited Freedom of Information Act looks set to be widely tested out by the press as soon as it comes into force next January.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information has revealed plans to contact every newspaper editor in the country, setting out how they can test the new law with their local councils.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 comes into law in January 2005, bringing into force new rights on access to information held by public bodies.
CFOI director Maurice Frankel told a conference of local government officers: “We are going to write to every newspaper in the country, explaining the act, offering training on the act and explaining what they can do to put the act to the test.”
He added: “You are going to be tested on this legislation the moment it comes into force by your local newspapers, by national newspapers, by local groups of various kinds. It’s going to be on the front page if you don’t do it properly.”
Frankel warned council officers that they would be given short shrift by the press if they were not ready to comply with the first Freedom of Information Act requests.
He said: “Bear in mind this act was passed in November 2000. By the time it comes into force in January 2005, you will have had four years and two months. You have been given longer to prepare for this legislation than any other country.”
The law will provide the press with a legal right to demand information held by public bodies for the first time.
It states that public authorities must first reveal whether the information asked for is being held and then communicate it to the person who has made the request.
The act sets a time limit of 20 working days for the public authority concerned to reply. If it wants to refuse an information request, it has to set out the reasons why. There will be a right of appeal to the new office of the Information Commissioner.
The act has been criticised by journalists because of the large number of information categories exempted from it.
There are 24 in total, including: security matters, international relations, the economy, law enforcement, audit functions, health and safety and anything “prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs.
By Dominic Ponsford