Falconer: under attack
Editors have backed demands for the Government to earmark provide extra resources so that public bodies can cope with journalists’ requests to open their files when the Freedom of Information Act comes into force on 1 January.
The move came as MPs warned that many of the 100,000 public bodies are ill-prepared to cope with the open government regime despite being given four years by Parliament to prepare.
The police are said to be the best prepared, the NHS less so. And while some councils will be able to comply, others are simply not ready.
The Constitutional Affairs Select Committee blamed Lord Falconer’s Department for Constitutional Affairs for issuing late guidance, particularly over the fees public bodies can charge to make files available.
The MPs said it was unclear whether public bodies would face a flood of requests or merely a trickle.
But they warned Lord Falconer that should a flood of requests result in an unexpectedly large number of complaints he should ensure information commissioner Richard Thomas “is properly resourced to deal with them”.
Their demand was backed by Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, who said: “If the change from a regime of secrecy to one of open government is to be achieved there has to be a tough regime from the information commissioner.
“The committee is right to say there should be proper resources.
Everything we have heard from the information commission shows he intends to make the act work, but he has to have the resources to back him.
Lord Falconer should ensure the funds are provided by the Treasury.”
Satchwell said there was concern among editors about the state of readiness of public bodies, particularly local councils.
His concern was echoed by the MPs who said there was complacency among council chief executives who had mistakenly assumed the existing Access to Information regime operating in local government was similar to the FoI regime.
The committee said local government could only cope if they received a “low level” of requests. They said chief executives should ensure full compliance with the regime.
Committee chairman Alan Beith said: “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.”
Tory shadow secretary of state for constitutional affairs Oliver Heald said: “The DCA has had four years to get this right. The FoI Act is now potentially a disaster in the making.”
By David Rose