A more open society is required as Information Commissioner calls for greater disclosure

The dawn of the Freedom of Information age was supposed to bring a shift in government attitudes to secrecy. So why, asks Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, has the Information Commissioner made a call for greater disclosure?

Nearly 10,000 leaders of public bodies in England and Wales have been told they must help make Britain a more open society by releasing a greater amount of information to the public.

The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has written to all chief executives of local authorities, NHS trusts, police agencies and thousands of other organisations, urging them to disclose a range of information "as a matter of routine".

The decision to embark upon such a broad offensive is partly driven by the new Freedom of Information publication schemes which public bodies must have in place by the end of this year. But it will also serve as a timely reminder that three years after the introduction of the right-to-know laws in England and Wales, obfuscation and political censorship still present a huge obstacle to a truly open society.

More than a third of all requests to government departments and public bodies are refused in part or in whole and around a half of complaints concerning failed requests are upheld by the Information Commissioner.

This month, Mr Thomas told a Freedom of Information conference in London that public authorities must do more to disclose more information in a proactive way and eradicate unnecessary secrecy.

After a cut in resources in 2007/08, the ICO's FOI funding has now increased again to £5.5m – the same level that was set in 2006/07. Mr Thomas hopes that the new funding will enable the ICO to continue to close more cases than it receives each month.

But without more money and more case officers to handle the most difficult cases, the spirit of the legislation is not being met. Some of the hardest cases, dealing with public complaints about refusals to release information on a range of issues, including the security costs for the Royal Family and documents relating to cabinet minutes, have waiting times of nearly two years.

Unless this backlog can be reduced quickly, the public will lose faith in its information watchdog.

Freedom Of Information: Watchdog targets government and public institutions (The Independent, 13 June 2008)