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OUT-LAW News, 13/01/2006 The Freedom of Information Act came into force 12 months ago and most public authorities say it is helping to create a culture of greater openness. But the Act's regulator has had over 2,300 complaints about the public sector improperly refusing to release information.

According to the Information Commissioner's Office, over 1,000 of these complaints have been resolved either by negotiation, informal resolution or by formal decision notice. Only 135 such notices have been issued so far. The ICO has been criticised for a delay in dealing with complaints, generating a backlog of six months, according to some reports. The ICO blames this partly on an initial surge of complaints, reflecting the initial wave of information requests made to public authorities at the start of 2005.

But the ICO reports that it has learned much in the past year and it has recently instituted a series of new measures designed to help it deal more effectively with complaints.

These include setting up a new case reception unit, introducing a new complaints form, more active case management and extra staff, including more senior managers.

“I am confident that with the changes we have made, along with our growing experience, we can accelerate case handling procedures and improve productivity,” said Information Commissioner Richard Thomas.

“Particularly complex cases do take longer to resolve, but increasing experience will continue to reduce the time this takes. We have already closed over a third of all cases and our closure rate continues to improve. We are also discussing increased resources with the Department for Constitutional Affairs which will help us to deliver further improvements to our service,” he said.

The most common complaints relate to the general right of access to information held by public authorities (where the complaint is that requested information has not been provided, in full or in part) and to the length of time a public authority may take to comply with a request.

A survey carried out among 500 public authorities reveals that the majority believe the Act is beneficial and is helping to create a culture of greater openness in the public sector.

Increased openness and transparency, better records management, improved accountability and improved relationships with the public were all highlighted in the survey as benefits of the Act. Three out of five respondents said that their organisation released more information to the public as a result of the Freedom of Information Act.

Two thirds of public authorities receiving information requests had turned one or more requests down, with 77 per cent of large authorities and 52 per cent of small to medium-sized authorities admitting to rejecting a request. The most common reason for this, according to the survey, was because the request sought personal information on a staff member (53 per cent). Other common reasons for rejection were commercial sensitivity (33 per cent) or the fact that the data was available elsewhere (14 per cent).

Most authorities (76 per cent) are planning further changes to their publication schemes or their filing and record management systems in the next year, in order to further comply with the Act.

“Governmental culture is starting to change,” said Mr Thomas. “There is still a long way to go but I am encouraged by the range and significant number of disclosures we have seen so far.”

Copyright © 2006, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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