Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs Seventh Report

7  Conclusion

109. A wide range of new information is being released by public authorities as a result of FOI and this information is being used constructively. Members of the public, as well as journalists, campaigners and academics, are making use of the legislation, and, in general, public authorities are coping with its demands. For these reasons, the majority of our witnesses judged the first year of FOI implementation to be a success.

110. Some requesters have, however, experienced long delays in receiving responses from authorities. Some of these delays can be attributed to authorities' inexperience and we expect to see an improved compliance with the 20 day statutory response deadline over the next year or two as authorities become more familiar with the Act. We believe that many other long delays are attributable to the lack of clarity about response targets in the central guidance and that the DCA could and should bring about a much more timely response from the public sector by setting specific targets for public interest consideration and internal reviews in the section 45 code of practice.

111. We heard a number of concerns from both requesters and authorities about the effectiveness of the complaints resolution process. The Information Commissioner himself acknowledged that the first year had been more challenging that he had expected. A recovery plan is now in place to improve the quality and quantity of decision notices issued by the ICO and we will review the Commissioner's autumn progress report to assess whether this is achieving results.

112. One of the often-stated intentions of FOI legislation is to bring about a culture change towards greater openness in the public sector, but other jurisdictions have found that culture change remains an elusive aspiration. The Canadian experience after 16 years of FOI was that 'it has been successful in forcing public servants to disclose more information - but it has not changed the closed culture. And the clear evidence of the durability of the old ways is the system-wide crisis of delay in answering access requests. These delays illustrate the capacity of the public service (through design, incompetence or both) to thwart the clearly expressed will of Parliament'.[91] Professor Alasdair Roberts argues that there has been little evidence of profound shifts in bureaucratic culture in any of the Commonwealth jurisdictions which implemented FOI legislation during the 1970s and 1980s:

    Governments have become more open; but this does not mean that they have acquired a 'culture of openness'. It means only that the rules that govern the conflict over information have shifted in favour of openness, and that government officials (as a rule) recognise their ultimate obligation to submit to the rule of law.[92]

113. A culture change towards greater openness is the long term aim, but the immediate priority should be a more effective and assertive enforcement of the law. The first year of FOI in the UK has demonstrated a shift towards greater openness in parts of the public sector. We look to the DCA and the ICO to ensure that this shift continues and that public authorities recognise their obligations under the FOI Act - this includes taking all necessary steps to protect the integrity of the information which they hold electronically.

91   Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada Annual Report 1998-1999; Back

92   'Two challenges in administration of the Access to Information Act'; Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2006
Prepared 28 June 2006