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The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has issued new guidelines for the public sector on how to deal with the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act and data protection requirements.

In the first annual report from the ICO since the FOI Act came into force, the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, says that it is already clear that the new laws are making a difference, and that he is encouraged by the progress so far.

"At every level of public life, a great deal of material has been published which has never before seen the light of day...The success of these laws will not be judged by how many requests are made or complaints upheld, but by the readiness of public bodies to release information, proactively or on request," he writes.

On data protection, he acknowledges that "We can't do this because of data protection" is too often invoked by "lazy or incompetent organisations" as an excuse not to do something. He adds: "The law very rarely stops a valid activity altogether. Rather it regulates how information should be handled so that there are no surprises and no mistakes."

He notes that although there have been complaints about disclosure refusals (over 1,000 to date) the majority of refusals are not challenged.

However, around half of the complaints filed cover procedural issues, suggesting that public bodies are still not totally clear about their obligations and responsibilities under the Act. This has prompted the ICO to collate new top-level guidelines for public bodies dealing with requests for information.

The guidelines (which you can read in full on this pdf) broadly encourage public bodies to be positive and proactive about releasing information. "Don't wait to be asked" says one tip, "Supply additional information, where it is useful" says another. It also recommends being extremely clear about the reasons when a request has to be refused, and reminds organisations that the 20 day deadline must be met.

"The principles and rights available under freedom of information laws provide a powerful reminder that governments serve the people, not the other way round," Thomas says. We can't help but agree with that sentiment, even if there are 210 reasons to refuse a request for information.

You can read the full report (also a pdf) here. ®

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