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FRONT LINE FIRST - LAW

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The Freedom of Information Act 2000 may have been passed in November 2000, but it is suddenly very topical. The lor...
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 may have been passed in November 2000, but it is suddenly very topical. The lord chancellor and the information commissioner (or at least their representatives) are making a whistle-stop tour of the country, urging councils to start preparations now. Since the act is not effective for 12 months, this may seem a little premature, but the dynamic duo insist work should start now.

The act enables persons (natural or legal) to request information from a council which, if held, must be supplied. If not, the information commissioner can take enforcement action which could culminate in proceedings for contempt of court. However, commissioner Elizabeth France has emphasised that she wants to work by persuasion and encouragement rather than coercion.

The reason councils should be preparing now is that each must produce a publication scheme by December 2002. The purpose of a publication scheme is to make clear to the public what is readily available. A scheme is a structured list of available information. It has to say what categories of information can be obtained and in what form (document, e-mail) it will be provided. Topics could, for example, include committee minutes, policy documents, planning permission and enforcement decisions. Within each topic would be sub-divisions.

The commissioner hopes other organisations will adopt similar schemes and she will produce model schemes and guidance within two months.

Applicants for information are not limited by the publication scheme - they can ask for whatever they wish - but the scheme will reflect the information the council anticipates it will be asked about most often. The creation of a scheme will mean that thought is given to what information is now available, what could reasonably be added and how accessible it is. The commissioner has to approve the scheme.

Creating a scheme will take time and co-ordination across the council, which

is why the commissioner is drawing attention to it. It is worth remembering that the act is retrospective, but a council cannot be asked to supply what it has not got. Does keeping those 10-year-old

files on defunct committees really fulfil any purpose?

There are exemptions to information which has to be provided, such as audit functions, enforcement, legal privilege and personal information. There will be a scale of fees. Information must be provided in 20 days. The experience in other countries is that rival politicians, newspaper reporters and firms seeking commercially useful information are the main users of the new procedures.

Riddell Graham

Director, Legal services, Crewe & Nantwich BC

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