Editors call for rethink as FoI delayed to 2005

Editors are to press the Lord Chancellor to think again after he ruled this week that journalists would be denied the legal right of access to information from 70,000 public bodies until 2005.

A year after the Freedom of Information Act received royal assent, Lord Irvine announced that government departments would be given another year to outline the information they intended to make available.

The National Assembly for Wales and some quangos will also have to publish their publication schemes at the same time, in November 2002.

They will be followed by local government in February 2003; police, police authorities, the Crown Prosecution Service, Serious Fraud Office and Armed Forces (June 2003); the Health Service in England and Wales (October 2003); schools, universities, remaining quangos (February 2004) and remaining public authorities (June 2004).

Public bodies in Northern Ireland will either have to conform to the same timetable or devise alternative arrangements. In Scotland, the Scottish Parliament is considering introducing its own Freedom of Information law.

But Lord Irvine said information provided would be that which public bodies wanted to provide "proactively" and individual right of access would not be allowed until January 2005.

Jack Straw, who as Home Secretary piloted the law through Parliament, provoked further dismay by overruling Michael Buckley, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, by refusing to say how many Home Office ministers had declared outside interests. The ruling bars journalists from information about internal disclosures which ministers make on their private business interests to fellow ministers.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: "This is a double blow for openness. They promised us the right to know but are insisting on the right to say no."

Tony Blair’s decision this summer to transfer responsibility for the Freedom of Information Act from the Home Office to Lord Irvine raised hopes it would speed up its implementation.

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said he would write to the Lord Chancellor asking him to think again but meanwhile would urge editors to press for public bodies to be as open as possible. "It is time we broke down the barriers of secrecy and started to create a culture of openness," said Satchwell.

"Journalists have to live on a diet of leaks or information they dig out. If the Government has confidence in its own policies it should be more open."

Lord Irvine said: "We always said it would take at least 18 months for the first benefits of this landmark piece of legislation to be provided to the public."

By David Rose

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