FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT: The Freedom of Information Act allows people to demand information from a wide variety of organisations, including hospitals and local authorities. Will they will be ready? Daniel Lee investigates

To judge by the haphazard and painful process of extracting material from public bodies for this article, few NHS or local government organisations are ready for the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act.

After days spent on dead-end telephone calls, I finally came across an NHS Confederation spokesman, who said: 'I am afraid to say that, after discussions with the policy manager who deals with information issues, the confederation has not covered this issue within its policy remit. '

Local Government Association officers were also at a loss, although a spokesman stressed the importance of the legislation. 'The act puts major new duties on local councils. They should not delay their preparations for it - the LGA will be working with councils and the information commissioner in the lead-up to implementation. '

The act was passed eight months ago. Its provisions will be phased in over five years, in line with a timetable yet to be fixed.

It will entitle members of the public to vast amounts of information from a wide variety of organisations, including hospitals, GPs and pharmacists, local authorities, schools, government departments and companies exercising functions of a public nature (running a school, for example).

Organisations failing to grant access to relevant information may be liable to penalties; inaccurate, untidy or offensive records may give rise to legal proceedings.

Sue Charles, media and communications partner at DJ Freeman solicitors, says: 'If the legislation succeeds in its publicised aim of giving people free access to information, there may be a lot of work in store for public authorities. It is important to bear in mind that applications for data may be made by commercial bodies, as well as private individuals. '

Some organisations are further ahead in this game than others. Calderdale council is lucky enough to have Ibrahim Hasan as its principal solicitor. He is a trainer in information law and was a member of the Home Office consultation group on the act.

'I do not think local authorities are ready, ' he says.

'Media coverage has given the impression that there are lots of exemptions to hide behind, but many of these are factors such as national security, more applicable to central government. The emphasis for most authorities will be very much on disclosure. '

Not only will organisations need to be prepared to hand over bundles of information when requested, they will also need to be sure not to reveal too much, since freedom of information will work in tandem with data protection legislation. It will not be legal to reveal details of third parties, so files on each individual will need to be checked to exclude information relating to anyone else.

There have been a series of pilots in doctors' surgeries, co-ordinated by the NHS Information Authority, aimed at finding out how this new openness will work in the health arena.

Cecilia Pyper, a GP at Bury Knowle health centre in Oxford, says: 'Patients like being able to see their records and we want extra funds to continue the scheme.

'About one in 10 of the surgery's patient sample group has taken up the offer to look at their records since March, and more are applying. Initially, some patients were concerned that asking for access might upset their doctor, but we were able to put their minds at rest in forum group meetings. As well as helping people understand their medical backgrounds, access also acted as a useful way of ensuring that information was accurate. '

One person, she said, spotted that her notes did not refer to a penicillin allergy.

Dr Pyper is, however, concerned that the recent Health and Social Care Act threatens to undermine patient confidence in the proper management of private records. 'One clause gives the government power to give third parties access to medical records for research. Patients do not like their consent being assumed. '

A draft code of practice on how public authorities should deal with information requests has been issued by the Home Office; the Public Records Office has issued a code on records management. Both available at www. open. gov. uk/

Walk to freedom: the main provisions of the Freedom of Information Act

Perhaps the most urgent requirement is for public authorities to set up a publication scheme for information. Approved by the new office of the information commissioner, this will have to show all the information the authority aims to publish, how it will be published and whether it will be available free of charge.

The public will have a general right to recorded information held by public authorities for their public functions. Decisions on requests for data should be made within a 20-day time limit.

Even exempted information, such as security-sensitive or trade-secret material, will be disclosable if it is in the public interest to be so.

Rights to information will be enforced by a new information tribunal. An authority that destroys or alters data may be guilty of a new offence of hindering subject access.