The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, dismayed campaigners for open government this week by not giving a firm date for implementing the Freedom of Information Act.
Although the act received the Royal Assent seven months ago, Lord Irvine told peers that no timetable had yet been set other than it had to be fully implemented by 30 November, 2005, and that he had a statutory duty to make a progress report by 30 November this year.
He was pressed in the House of Lords to give a firm date for implementation by Liberal Democrat peer Lord McNally who complained there was a "culture of secrecy at the heart of government".
The Lord Chancellor told him to be patient after announcing that 15 civil servants were in the process of being integrated into his department following the Prime Minister’s decision to transfer responsibility from the Home Office.
He named five departments which are to help Information Commissioner Elizabeth France by piloting publication schemes – information that they will make available under the act.
These are the Ministry of Defence, the Department for International Development, the Public Record Office, the Health & Safety Executive and the Medicines Control Agency.
"These schemes are intended to be a driving force for openness," Lord Irvine said. "But all this will take time in order to succeed." France will have to approve publication schemes for the 50,000 public authorities that will have to open up to the press.
Lord Irvine said France, who will combine her Information Commissioner role with the post of Data Protection Commissioner, intended recruiting another 150 staff on top of the 150 she already had.
"Recruitment of the right people in these numbers with experience of how the public service operates and with the necessary investigative skills will take time," Lord Irvine said.
"A programme of awareness training throughout central government began in April and will continue into the autumn.
"However, these are early days and Rome was not built in a day."
But while welcoming the pilot schemes, Andrew Ecclestone of the Campaign for Freedom of Information called on Lord Irvine to give a firm date for implementation of the act before Parliament adjourns for its three-month summer break at the end of July.
"We had been expecting a timetable to be announced in the spring but the General Election obviously put that back," Ecclestone said.
The Lord Chancellor confirmed that under the act people would be able to e-mail requests for information. But it would only be made available on the internet if it was "reasonable to do so".
Because the act will require retrospective information to be made available, most of it will not be stored electronically.
By David Rose