Information Commissioner issues warning to public bodies

Government departments and other public bodies have been warned that they face legal action unless they comply fully with the Freedom of Information Act.

Speaking on the third anniversary of the act's introduction, the Information Commissioner for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, Richard Thomas, said 2008 would be the year when he would finally clamp down on public organisations that failed to disclose information correctly.

'Those who know they need to get their act together will be hearing from us,' Thomas told The Observer. 'We've had to neglect some of our work in this area because all of our work has gone into complaint handling, but we can ultimately serve enforcement notices and we'd like to be more effective in targeting those public authorities who need a mixture of persuasion and a stick. Watch this space.'

Thomas said there was a need for more central and local government departments to be proactive in releasing information and that this would be another area his office would be investigating in the new year.

So far only a handful of public bodies have been served with enforcement notices, but the commissioner's new hard line marks a shift in approach that could be embarrassing for Whitehall departments.

Now the act had bedded down there was no excuse for ignorance, Thomas said. 'Even if every politician and every civil servant hasn't learnt to love FOI, now that they understand the benefits they have to learn to live with it.'

In the past three years, there have been an estimated 300,000 requests for information under the act. Almost 7,500 complaints have been made against public authorities which failed to divulge information or did not do so on time.

Vow to get tough on 'right to know': Whitehall faces legal clampdown over failure to disclose information (The Observer, 30 December 2007)