From 1 January the Freedom of Information Act 2000 introduces a new openness to public authorities. The public has a right to request any information and authorities must reply within 20 working days.
If they do not, the person requesting the information can make an appeal to the Office of the Information Commissioner. Ultimately notices can be served to force disclosure of information if it is in the public interest. The main way organisations can handle the act proactively is to provide information through an approved publication scheme in line with models developed by the information commissioner.
One of the major concerns for trusts is the disclosure of information relating to commercial contracts with suppliers. Authorities could find themselves in the position of being forced to divulge the information and then being subject to an action for breach of contract from the supplier. Research carried out by Thames Valley strategic health authority showed that many FOI leads in trusts lacked knowledge of the legislation's impact and had no support. It worked with the trusts to develop a programme with law firm Morgan Cole. The SHA bore the costs for the start-up and a series of 12 seminars.
The benefit to the trusts is a common approach to the FOI, with standardised letters and other material for the trusts to use, regular newsletters and a CD-ROM with comprehensive information. Also important is the avoidance of time, effort and cost in engaging local solicitors. There is also what SHA FOI lead Ron Richards calls a 'hit squad' to go and help trusts having problems with the act. He says other countries' experience suggests public demand will be slow at first but will increase after four to five months.
For more information e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org