Wills: "we are talking about a culture shift"
Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine has asked a minister in every Whitehall department to champion the drive to open up more information to journalists.
Local councils are also being invited to delegate the same role to a named chief officer, as part of preparations by 70,000 public bodies to implement the Freedom of Information Act.
Stung by journalists’ criticisms over the five-year-delay in implementing the act, Michael Wills MP, parliamentary secretary in the Lord Chancellor’s Department, has summoned the new ministerial champions to a meeting next week.
There he will tell them that the Government is genuine in wanting a new culture of openness, and that they must ensure civil servants respond accordingly.
"They will be told to take ownership," Wills said. "The same message will go to them that is going out to local authorities. We are putting pressure on every public body to deliver, to raise their game.
"At the end of the day what we are talking about is a culture shift. Every single person in each of these organisations has got to be up to speed on this act." Wills will ram home the same message to local councils in a series of roadshows this spring and later this autumn.
Central government, the National Assembly for Wales and quangos will lead the way in November in issuing publication schemes, setting out the information they intend voluntarily to make available.
They will be followed next year by local government (February); police (June); the NHS (October); and, in 2004, by schools and universities (February) and remaining public bodies (June).
Individual rights of access to information has been delayed until January 2005, which has brought the Government under attack.
Wills admitted he had been inundated with letters of complaint from editors. "This act is going to be used. That is the important message for all public bodies. Journalists will use this act. Individuals who now go to their MP will use this act.
"If you can help people use it in a well-targeted, well-informed way it will be much better for the citizen and the organisation. People think that 2005 is a long way away. It isn’t."
He said everyone in a public body was involved.
"Every piece of correspondence that comes into a public body has got to be in compliance with the act."
Wills said the act was an important safeguard for democracy. "People who often come most angry to my surgeries and are most upset in their letters are the people who feel they are not getting the answers they want.
"The fundamental lesson we all have to keep reminding ourselves about is that if you treat people with respect and answer their questions fully and quickly, there is a more positive dialogue that ensues. This act will help that process."
By David Rose