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DCA FAILINGS LEAD TO PATCHY PREPARATION FOR FREEDOM OF INFORMATION

Concerns about the public sector’s readiness to comply with the new freedom of information law are today raised in a report by the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee.

The report, which provides a snapshot of public sector preparations, warns that with less than a month to go before some 100,000 public authorities are legally obliged to give the public a general right of access to information, preparedness for the new freedom of information (FoI) regime is patchy.

While good progress appears to have been made in Whitehall departments the report shows that the picture elsewhere is less encouraging.

The failure of the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) to provide strategic control, leadership or early enough guidance to public bodies on the technical aspects of implementation as well as the high turnover of DCA staff are partly to blame for the current situation, concludes the report.

The report adds that the lateness of guidance from the DCA on matters such as fees means that crucial issues have had to be addressed by public bodies at the last moment, giving them only a few weeks instead of four years to prepare for FoI. Training, in particular, has been hampered by delays in DCA decisions and guidance.

While the report praises the police service for their efforts to be ready for FoI, it cautions that some local authorities will not be compliant with the new open information regime which takes effect on 1 January 2005 and adds that preparations in the health sector are varied, particularly among independent practitioners.

Committee Chairman the Rt Hon Alan Beith MP said:

“This is an important and welcome piece of legislation and many people in the public services are working hard to meet its requirements.

“Our report is a snapshot of how well prepared public bodies are for implementation on 1st January.
“The DCA has had four years to prepare for freedom of information but with less than a month to go it appears that some bodies may not be well enough prepared.

“Our report shows that in the past, support and guidance from the Department of Constitutional Affairs, which has overall responsibility for guiding the public sector through the process of implementation for the Freedom of Information regime, has been lacking.

“Every effort must be taken in these last few weeks to iron out any remaining hurdles.
“Freedom of Information is not an optional extra that public bodies can sign up to if they want to; it is a legal obligation that they must be ready for.

“We believe that our inquiry has served as a clear reminder that public bodies must check whether they are ready to implement the new legislation.

“Freedom of Information must be seen as a positive development, not a chore.
Securing Freedom of Information is not just a chore to be undertaken it should be a catalyst to a cultural shift to greater openness.”

Notes for Editors:

1. The Freedom of Information Act comes fully into force on 1 January 2005. It establishes a general right of access to information subject to certain exemptions.

2. The FoI Act received royal assent on 30 November 2000, allowing four years to prepare for implementation.
3. The scope of the inquiry included an examination of: the state of preparedness for the implementation of Freedom of Information legislation; issues of implementation for central government departments; issues of implementation for local authorities and smaller public bodies; the role of the Department for Constitutional Affairs in co-ordinating the implementation of the Act.

4. In addition to taking written evidence, the Committee also heard oral evidence from representatives of: the National Archives, the Campaign for Freedom of Information, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the National Health Service, the British Medical Association, the Local Government Association, the Improvement and Development Agency, the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

5. Committee Membership is as follows: Rt Hon Alan Beith MP (Chairman), Peter Bottomley MP, Mr Hilton Dawson MP, Mr James Clappison MP, Ross Cranston QC MP, Mr Andrew Rosindell MP, Mr Clive Soley MP, Mrs Ann Cryer MP, Keith Vaz MP, Mr Jim Cunningham MP, Dr Alan Whitehead MP

FURTHER INFORMATION

Media Enquiries: Adele Brown, Tel 020 7219 0724 / 07711 155 722, email: brownac@parliament.uk
Committee Website: www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/conaffcom.cfm
Watch committees and parliamentary debates online: www.parliamentlive.tv


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