How far will the Freedom of Information Act
open up local authorities and other bodies to public scrutiny?
Human rights solicitor Bernadette Livesey reports.
How much did your organisation spend last year
on agency staff? How much did the report from those consultants
cost? You would rather not say? Well you won’t have the choice for
much longer. The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2000 is designed
to give the public a right to access most information “held” by
public authorities. “Held” means that the authority has it – so
ownership is not an issue.
As well as who owns the information, the
following are unimportant under the act’s provisions: what lengths
are necessary for that information to be gathered and supplied, the
residence or nationality of the person making the request, the
motives of the person making the request, what the person will do
with the information next, and to whom it will be disclosed once
It is important to know that “a person” can
make a request for information, which includes a “corporate person”
– that is, a company. Information includes not only paper records,
but files, photographs, drawings, maps, plans, diagrams, schemes,
records, archives and information held by electronic means,
networked information and information held on a PC.
Personal data cannot be disclosed, and there
is a close link between the FOI act and the Data Protection Act
1998. So an applicant can ask for general and even specific
information, but if it crosses the line into personal data about an
individual, then under FOI it is effectively transferred into a
Data Protection Act matter.
The list of public bodies to which the act
applies is long and includes government departments, health
authorities and local government bodies. But other, non-government
bodies, including voluntary sector and private sector
organisations, are going to be affected.
As well as its impact on statutory agencies,
the act has huge implications for “partners” of public authorities.
It is quite hard to have a partnership between different agencies
and organisations where information does not flow.
FOI is going to be a very complex area and the
Lord Chancellor’s Department has issued a draft code of practice on
the management of records under freedom of information, which
advises each authority to have:
– A records management function recognised as
a specific corporate programme, including creation, storage,
management, retention and destruction.
– A designated senior member of staff with
lead responsibility for records management within it.
– The levels of organisational support to
– An overall policy statement, endorsed by top
management and readily available to staff at all levels of the
Traditionally, public authorities have not
made information available to the public. Records are kept but
often nobody is clear why. It would be wise for authorities to
think about what information they hold and why. It is also
essential that everyone working in a public authority who deals
with correspondence, or who may be required to provide information,
is properly trained. In the light of the frequent criticisms of the
way social work records are managed, perhaps the impetus of this
act will bring positive change.
Already the Lord Chancellor has announced that
one part of the act will be implemented ahead of January 2005 (see
box left). These are “publication schemes”, lists of the types of
information that can be easily made available – for example,
policies, procedure manuals, minutes of meetings.
FOI will affect all aspects of all public
authorities, including, of course, social work practice.
Authorities should be preparing for its implementation now and
social workers ought to be kept informed on their progress. This
act is not an optional extra, it is a duty – authorities have to
Bernadette Livesey is a human rights
solicitor for Walker Morris.
The act is regulated by the
information commissioner. Go to www.dataprotection.gov.uk
for further information
Bodies that must publish before 2005
November 2002 Central
government (except the Crown Prosecution Service and Serious Fraud
Office), Parliament, National Assembly for Wales
Non-Departmental Public Bodies currently
subject to the Code of Practice on Access to Government
February 2003 Local
authorities (except police authorities)
June 2003 Police, CPS,
Serious Fraud Office, Armed Forces
October 2003 Health
February 2004 Schools,
Remaining non-departmental public bodies
June 2004 All remaining