The Freedom of Information Act received Royal Assent on 30 November 2000. It places obligations on all public authorities in relation to the information they hold. These include councils, Parliament, government departments and health trusts.
The main features of the Act are:
-A general right of access to information held by public authorities in the course of carrying out their public functions, subject to certain conditions and exemptions. Most exempt information must nonetheless still be disclosed where the public interest in disclosure outweighs the public interest in maintaining the exemption. This right of access is conferred not just on individuals, but on companies and organisations.
-A new office of information commissioner, which will combine responsibility for data protection and freedom of information. A new information tribunal will have powers to enforce the rights created.
-Publication schemes. Every public authority will have to adopt a scheme - approved by the information commissioner - which relates to the publication of information in its possession. It must set out the classes of information the authority publishes or intends to publish, the manner of its publication and the cost to the applicant.
The secretary of state is required to make regulations governing what fees councils may charge. It is proposed these will specify up to 10% of the reasonable marginal costs of complying with the request plus disbursements may be charged. This will be a maximum figure - a council may decide not to charge anything. The applicant has three months to pay before his request lapses.
Under Part III of the Act the secretary of state has issued a draft code of practice providing guidance to public authorities on dealing with requests for information and publication schemes (www.homeoffice.gov.uk) as well as on the internal complaints system every authority is encouraged to set up. The Lord Chancellor has issued a draft code of practice on records management under the Act (www.pro.gov.uk).
The Act will be phased in over the next five years - central government will have to comply with it by January 2002, local government by July 2002, the health sector by 2003 and the education sector by 2004.
It is designed to introduce a new culture of openness in the public sector. Whether or not it actually does is open to debate. It has already come under criticism, especially from the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which claims it does not go far enough (www.cfoi.org.uk). What is certain is that it will create even more work for many councils already struggling to implement other legislation in this area such as the Data Protection Act 1998.
Ibrahim Hasan, principal solicitor, Calderdale MBC.