Public bodies not ready for new FoIA legislation

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Public bodies not ready for new FoIA legislation

Public bodies risk releasing sensitive and harmful information as they try to comply with new legislation, industry watchers have warned. Law firms and public body officials said the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA), which comes into force on 1 January, will force mistakes because of its sheer complexity.

And security practitioners agreed. "I think it is going to be a disaster," said the head of IT security at one borough council.

"Most authorities are simply not ready for this."

Another, who also asked not to be named, eched that view: "Some public authorities are finding themselves overwhelmed."

The FoIA gives people the right to request information from public bodies. Its intention is to make organisations within the sector more open and accountable for their actions. But some have said the weight of information that has to be made available will cause major problems in the January rush to be compliant.

"If requested, under the new act emails have to be disclosed," said Tamzin Matthews, associate at legal firm Morgan Cole. "It is likely that information will be released that should not be."

The act contains clauses enforcing the retention of some sensitive data, such as that in the interests of national security. But some experts fear it will slip through the net.

"Taking the whole of the public sector into account, something is bound to go wrong," said Mark Smith, a solicitor specialising in information technology at legal firm Olswang. "And when it does go wrong, it is bound to be big."

Law firm Morgan Cole claimed the public sector is under-prepared for the responsibilities it will face following introduction of the act. It also highlighted the problems that private-sector companies will have when information on pricing, tender bids and customer contract details becomes public.

"I suspect that many suppliers to the public sector are not aware of what will hit them when the act comes into force," said Tamzin Matthews. "The FoIA will render blanket confidentiality clauses completely useless."

The information commissioner, who will enforce the FoIA, warned public bodies they have no place to hide. "The aim is to create transparency and greater trust between the public and public bodies,"says Phil Boyd, assistant commissioner.

"The public sector has had four years to prepare for the act. Poor record management systems should not be an excuse for a lack of preparation."

Despite the gloomy predictions, Peter Ryder, head of IT services at Preston Borough Council and VP of the Society of Information Technology Management, claimed the situation is improving. "Six months ago, we looked in trouble, but I think public bodies are getting a handle on it now," he said. "Even so, I think mistakes are inevitable."

And according to Paul Bettison of the Local Government Association, some authorities have found other ways to avoid the leakage of embarrassing information. "You hear stories of public bodies frantically cleaning up records – and by cleaning up I mean shredders glowing in the dark," he said.

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