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'Disappointed' in FoI oversight

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Parliament's Committee on Constitutional Affairs has criticised the government for failing to acknowledge the "serious threat" to Freedom of Information (FOI) in how electronic records are stored.

The cross party group of MPs have said they are "disappointed" with evidence provided by the Department of Constitutional Affairs minister Baroness Ashton on how the records will be preserved.

Parliament's Committee on Constitutional Affairs says in its report Freedom of Information - one year on, released on 28 June 2006: "When the DCA minister Baroness Ashton came to give evidence to us about government plans to ensure the long-term preservation of documents held in digital form, we were disappointed by her failure to recognise that this was a serious threat."

It says plans are needed to handle the rapid and significant changes in technology and the "inevitable" degradation of storage media.

"National Archives and the DCA must take the lead in developing such plans," said the committee. "FoI has no force without a proper commitment to ensure that the information held is in a retrievable form."

Record management practices in some public authorities also need "substantial" improvement, warns the committee.

"More proactive leadership and progress management of departments' records management system is required."

Overall the committee finds the FoI Act a "significant success," due to the efforts made by public authorities to meet its demands. But it warns that delays in providing the information outside of the 20 day statutory deadline undermines the effectiveness of the act.

"In addition, lack of interpretation in the code of practice as 'reasonable' time limits enables public authorities to make indefinite extensions of many months in order to make public interest decisions and to conduct internal reviews," it says.

The committee recommends the DCA should also improve compliance, and finds that the complaints resolution process provided by the Information Commissioner's Office during 2005 was "unsatisfactory".

Requesters and public authorities said they have "waited months" for the commissioner to start investigating their complaints.

The commissioner responded to this by saying it will publish a progress report in September 2006, which the committee will use to assess whether any follow ups are needed.

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

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