Region’s FoI family set to grow

'No comment' or 'that is confidential' used to be the common response from a public body that did not want to tell us something.

But six years ago, new legislation knocked down a brick wall standing in the way of a person's right to know and allowed greater powers to hold decision makers to account.

Since the Freedom of Information Act came into force in 2005, hundreds of documents that have been stored in filing cabinets or on hard drives in council offices, government departments, police headquarters and health trusts have been made available to the public.

The law has enabled individuals, media organisations and political and pressure groups to scrutinise and uncover information that public authorities had previously kept hidden.

Now the coalition government has unveiled proposals to widen the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to make more organisations more open and accountable.

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Bodies including the Association of Chief Police Officers, UCAS, which processes university admissions, and the Financial Services Ombudsman will be subject to the act as soon as possible.

And the government is consulting on bringing many other organisations that perform a public role into the FoI family, including examination boards, harbour authorities, the Local Government Association, Schools Inspections Service, Trinity House Lighthouse Service, Independent Schools Inspectorate, and Parking and Traffic Appeals service.

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The move for greater transparency has been welcomed by campaigners. However, some have called for the act to go further to include private firms such as utilities companies and Network Rail.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has also criticised changes to the legislation when it comes to FoI requests relating to the Royal Family, which means that the Queen, the Prince of Wales and Prince William have been granted absolute exemption from the act, even if there is a public interest.

The changes will also mean that, from 2013, the majority of public records stored at the National Archives will be made available when they are 20-years-old, instead of the current 30-year timescale.

But how has the act affected those public bodies already part of the FoI system? In Norfolk, the number of requests for information continues to increase every year.

Norfolk Police said they were sometimes spending in excess of 18 hours researching and responding to a single FoI request at a cost of between �12.50 and �425 a go. When the act commenced in 2005, the police HQ in Wymondham received 256 requests for information over the course of the year and last year the organisation received 647 requests.

Supt Bernadette Cartwright, of the professional standards department at Norfolk Police, urged people to check the authority's disclosure log to avoid making duplicate requests on crime statistics, local policing and expenditure.

'The act was passed with the intention of making organisations which operate as part of a key public service more transparent, accountable and effective, and we support the principle that we should be accountable and open to public scrutiny. There are occasions when the system is not used in the spirit in which it was originally intended,' she said.

Norfolk County Council dealt with 798 FoI requests in 2009/10, at a cost of �78,204, compared to the 569 applications the previous year. More than 350 of those were from individuals and 163 from the media.

'Given our experience, we would be very willing to provide training to organisations that find themselves subject to FOI for the first time,' said a spokesman.

Of course, some FoI requests are declined by authorities if they believe there is a very good reason to do so and if the request is seen to be obsessive, disruptive, cause harassment or is not in the public interest.

But on the whole, the act has revolutionised the way we scrutinise public bodies and has helped newspapers like the EDP to uncover cases of excessive public spending and exposed the small print to service cuts, which is even more relevant in the current economic climate.

EDP editor Peter Waters said: 'The Freedom of Information Act has been a huge benefit to journalists, giving us access to information that we wouldn't otherwise be able to get. I'm not saying that public bodies would deliberately hold back information, but they weren't obliged to supply us. FoIs are an invaluable tool for us, ensuring that we help keep public bodies accountable and transparent.'

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