The Freedom of Information Act 2000 comes fully into force on 1 January 2005, providing a general right of access to information held by some 100,000 public authorities. This is an important piece of legislation and one which is very welcomethe Committee fully supports its aims and looks forward to its successful operation in the future. This inquiry focused on three representative sectors: the police, the health sector and local government. It provides a snapshot into the state of preparedness in the final months before full implementation of the Act. The Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) is responsible for overall co-ordination, with the Information Commissioner, of adequate preparatory measures.
The further one goes away from Whitehall departments, the more 'patchy' is the state of preparedness. Of the sectors we considered, the police service was apparently as well prepared as any public body, the health sector did not appear to be as close to achieving full compliance with the legislation, and in local government a varied picture emergedwith some authorities well advanced and others less so. Some public bodies did not feel that an effective co-ordinating body was in charge of the FOI process. Even where there were clear areas of responsibility for the DCA, it appeared incapable of timely production of necessary guidance and advicea point made repeatedly by our witnesses. In our view, the Department did not provide timely advice and guidance, most notably in the latter stages of the preparations for implementation in 2004.
The DCA's failure to provide early guidance on technical matters and gaps in its leadership on FOI have emphasised the problems to be overcome rather than the benefits of FOI and therefore risked creating the impression that FOI implementation is another chore to be undertaken, rather than a catalyst for a cultural shift to greater openness. Whatever the level of requests that emerge following full implementation, the law demands that all areas of public service covered by the Act should be ready by 1 January 2005. We are not confident that adequate preparations have been made to ensure that this will be achieved.