Irvine sets up seminar to brief ministers on FoI Act

The Lord Chancellor is to summon ministers to a seminar to explain the significance of the Freedom of Information Act amid concern some civil servants may be reluctant to open up to reporters.

Lord Irvine revealed the planned meeting while announcing that Whitehall has begun training civil servants in preparation for phasing in the act which will eventually require 50,000 public bodies to respond to requests for information from the press and public.

Ministers from every government department will attend the seminar, which will be held after Parliament reassembles in October.

The Information Commissioner, Elizabeth France, who will be policing the act, is expected to attend.

Making the announcement to peers just before the House of Lords adjourned for the three-month summer recess, Lord Irvine said: "My officials are discussing with officials in the Centre for Management and Policy Studies in the Cabinet Office arrangements for a ministerial seminar on freedom of information later in the year."

A spokesman for Lord Irvine’s department said: "This seminar is to ensure ministers are made fully aware of the significance of the act."

Hiss move follows criticism of the delay in implementing the act and concern over how civil servants will respond to approaches from reporters.

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, has raised with the Information Commissioner his concern that some civil servants may be less forthcoming than others.

"My worry is that some departments may spend the time trying to find out about the things they don’t have to publish rather than the things they do," Satchwell said.

"Ninety-five per cent of the public may be reasonably happy with what is done in their name and with their money. But the remaining five per cent are important. It is often the small things that affect people the most."

The need to train civil servants and recruit staff for the Information Commissioner is one of the reasons Lord Irvine has given for the delay in implementing the act, which received royal assent last November.

France wants the act phased in for central government next April, and local government the following year, but has yet to have the timetable approved by the Government. The act has to be implemented by 30  November 2005.

Lord Irvine said his department was providing "awareness training" for the rest of Whitehall but it was up to other departments to train their own civil servants.

By David Rose

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