LEGAL ISSUES

Published: 16/06/2005, Volume II5, No. 5960 Page 44

do not get stressed by the Freedom of Information Act, says lawyer David Lock. Take control, know your exemptions, and there will be no need for panic When the Freedom of Information Act came into force in January, the NHS braced itself for a tidal wave of tricky requests. Although the flood has not happened, challenges are emerging.

According to David Lock, head of health at law firm Mills and Reeve and a former junior government minister, applicants for information are falling into four groups: journalists, commercial companies, opposition politicians and the public. Each has their challenges, he says.

'For example, if you are dealing with a journalist you need to bear in mind that whatever you provide or do not provide will become news. Some of the worst publicity is caused by not disclosing. The Guardian recently ran a campaign looking at heart transplant survival rates and even those with low results looked better than those that didn't provide information, ' he says.

With commercial companies, adds David, the tricky issue is that they are very keen to get hold of pricing information. 'But you also have to make sure you do not have a legal duty of confidentiality to a private company, ' he says. One of the act's 23 exceptions - where information requests can be refused - concerns commercial interests.

It applies to information that, if released, would prejudice a commercial company that deals with the NHS.

The public presents a new challenge, says David. Anyone can request data and they can also preserve their anonymity.

'Properly used, the act is a powerful tool to engage with public. But from the feedback I get there is a significant problem with trusts spending disproportionate management time dealing with the demands of the obsessed. It is the 'bee in the bonnet' syndrome, ' he says.

'My advice is to understand all the exemptions in the act. They are carefully worded. Trusts must be more robust in dealing with these vexatious requests.' When in doubt, warns David, pick up the phone and seek legal advice.

He says the legislation is already affecting the way business is recorded.

'Minutes of meetings are beginning to get shorter, with only action points recorded and not the various discussions of the options. This is because oral statements are not disclosable information. But e-mails are.' David expects demand for information to continue to rise as people cotton on to their new rights, but the curve will eventually plateau. His advice to organisations is to imagine 'a concerned member of the public is standing on the shoulder of every trust employee'.

More information about the Freedom of Information Act is available from the Office of the Information Commissioner.

Rebecca Coombes

www. informationcommissioner. gov. uk