New Access to Information Law in Britain
May 9, 1999
ISSUE 1444, London, Sunday 9 May 1999
Big Brother Blunkett puts Orwell on the curriculum
New law forces public bodies to open files
By David Bamber and Tom Baldwin
PARENTS whose children have been refused a place at school will have to be told who took the decision and why, under new freedom of information legislation.
The new laws, to be unveiled this week, will also mean that patients on long waiting lists for an operation will have to be told which doctor took the decision and why people with other conditions are being given priority.
Far wider ranging than previously thought, the Freedom of Information Bill, which will be published on Thursday, will force public bodies to release all documents and files to members of the public, except under very limited circumstances.
Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, believes that the legislation will revolutionise the way schools, hospitals and the police deal with the public. However, the proposals are expected to disappoint some freedom of information campaigners who had wanted items such as briefings given to government ministers to be made public.
A senior Home Office official said:
"The proposals will completely change the way Government organisations relate to ordinary people. At the moment it is almost impossible to get information from some bureaucratic organisations. In future, they will be forced to release their files. This will change the entire culture of secrecy in Britain. Until now, attention has focused on how investigative journalists, or companies, might use the new legislation but it will have its biggest impact at grassroots level.
People will also gain the right to see all files held about them by local councils, hospitals, the Department of Social Security and other organisations. The legislation will cover all central Government departments, local councils, schools and the National Health Service. Privatised industries, such as British Telecom and British Gas, will also be covered in areas where they still have a near monopoly and act as a public body.
The new laws will also cover the police, in line with the recommendations of the inquiry into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence. Home Office insiders say that if the proposals were already law, Mr Lawrence's parents would be able to demand to know how many officers were assigned to their son's case and why crucial decisions were taken.
Victims of crime will be able to scrutinise how officers investigate burglaries and assaults. But some aspects of the police's operational and investigative role will still be exempt, to avoid criminals obtaining sensitive information.
The proposals will exclude the activities of the security and intelligence services, including MI5 and MI6. However, Maurice Frankel, of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said the security services should be covered by the proposals and also objected to a blanket ban on security information held by other departments being released.
Mr Frankel said: "Information that does not damage the national interest should be released. There is no need to simply exempt whole departments from the legislation." In addition, the advice that civil servants give to ministers and correspondence between Whitehall departments will be exempt.
Mr Frankel said: "I have grave worries about the strength and scope of the legislation -- we will have to wait and see if it lives up to what has been promised." Every organisation covered by the new laws will have to appoint an officer with responsibility for freedom of information who will draw up lists of all relevant internal documents -- which will be made public.
Any member of the public will then be able to see the information on payment of a set fee, likely to be £20. Complicated inquiries will cost more. Organisations will only be able to refuse to release information by arguing that to do so would cause "prejudice". Even then, it will be possible to appeal to a national freedom of information commissioner, likely to be Elizabeth France, the present data protection registrar, who will take on a combined role.
EVERY subject now has the statutory right under the Data Protection Act, 1984, to give the Board of Deputies forty days' notice in writing to provide copies of all data maintained by the Board on them, and to require the Board to make such corrections as the subject concerned may require.
Subjects who suspect that they are being victimised should write in the first instance by Recorded Mail to the Research Unit, Board of Deputies of British Jews, marking their letter for the attention of Michael Whine, Director, Research Unit, Commonwealth House, 1 - 19 New Oxford Street, London WC1A 1NF. If the Board refuses to give satisfaction within forty days, the subject should then complain in writing to the Registrar of the Data Protection Agency, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire SK9 5AF; the agency has statutory powers to search and seize databases in the event of non compliance with the Act.
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