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CODE OF PRACTICE ON ACCESS TO GOVERNMENT INFORMATION

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More people than ever have been making use of the code of practice on access to government information, according t...
More people than ever have been making use of the code of practice on access to government information, according to its annual monitoring report which is published by the home office.

The fifth annual report contains details of the number of requests for information received during 1998, their source, departmental responses and performance against targets.

Key figures include:

- A 532% increase in requests, a total of 23,859 cases during the year. However, one department, the DETR, showed an increase of 19, 988 cases. A standardised, and more representative, total figure 2,269 would show an increase of 11.4% on last year.

- The percentage of requests refused was 7.3%, the lowest since the code's first nine months in operation. This means that in 22,126 cases information requested was given to the applicant.

- 90.1% of code cases were answered within the 20 day target, down from the 94.8% of cases during 1997.

- The parliamentary ombudsman received 39 complaints in 1998 (compared to 30 in 1997), and agreed to investigate 17 of them.

Welcoming the publication of the monitoring report home secretary Jack Straw said:

'The current code is paving the way for when our draft Freedom of Information Bill becomes an Act. This monitoring report shows that government is opening up more and a culture change is beginning to show.

'People are flexing their muscles where their rights are concerned in terms of access to information and making sure that the system works for them.

'A Freedom of Information Act will give citizens a statutory right of access to information held by public authorities. It will be a significant advance on the current code, as access rights will be legally enforceable and appeal processes will be simplified.'

In December 1998 the home office, in consultation with the ombudsman's office, issued a guidance note on handling openness cases which put in place a new streamlined approach to handling appeals, designed to improve the handling of code cases.

The code will now have even wider coverage - 111 executive non-departmental public bodies and 47 advisory non-departmental public bodies came within the scope of the code with effect from 15 March 1999.

The report contains over 80 examples of how departments have responded to code requests and the commitments in the code to volunteer more information. For example:

- A general breakdown of the costs of the nuclear warhead programme for the financial year 1997/98 was provided in a supporting essay to the strategic defence review white paper, strategic defence review: modern forces for the modern world, which was published by MOD in July.

- The home office opened a number of files for public inspection, including details on the cases against Ruth Ellis, Ronald True, James 'Jack' Kelly and Irene Coffee. Files were also opened relating to liquor licensing, civil defence and women's prisons.

- The Child Support Agency has held 'disclosure roadshows' for its staff to promote a positive attitude towards the disclosure of information.

- The lord chancellor's department published the drafts of the new court rules which will support the government's civil justice reforms on its web site in June. The final rules were published in January 1999.

NOTES

1. The code of practice on access to government information came into force on 4 April 1994. The code of practice commits government departments and public bodies within the jurisdiction of the parliamentary ombudsman to volunteer information such as facts and analysis behind major policy decisions, as well as answering requests

for information. This is the fifth annual monitoring report and the fourth to cover a full year.

2. The code of practice will continue to apply until it is replaced by the proposed Freedom of Information Act.

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