The Freedom of Information Act came into full effect on New Year's Day, giving individuals for the first time the statutory right to see a massive amount of information held by Government departments and thousands of public bodies.
People have a right to information about the way decisions are made, and public money is spent, by more than 100,000 public authorities, including Government departments, schools, NHS Trusts, police forces and local authorities.
Anyone, of any nationality, and living anywhere in the world, will be able to make a written request for information, and expect a response within 20 working days.
There will be no charge for requests which cost central government less than £600 to answer (£450 for the rest of the public sector). Where costs exceed this, the public body can help the requester reformulate the request, so that it falls within this limit. It can also decline the request, provide the information at full cost or provide the information and waive the fee.
Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs Lord Falconer said:
"The introduction of the Freedom of Information Act is a major achievement. For too long, UK has lagged behind many other countries which implemented Freedom of Information years ago.
"We have caught up with other countries, and, in many cases, we have overtaken them. We have studied the experience of other countries to enable us to introduce one of the most generous Freedom of Information regimes in the world."
Rosemary Jay, a partner with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, commented: "This marks a new era. An information society needs information rights and the UK has lagged behind others for too long. It will be a challenge for some parts of the public sector but most have worked hard to prepare for it."
A specialist in freedom of information and data protection law, Rosemary Jay has worked with a large number of authorities in their preparations. But she acknowledged that the big bang effect â€“ with the right being introduced all at once â€“ has been criticised by some and has left some authorities less than fully prepared. "They need to focus on training and project implementation," she said.
The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has the task of monitoring and supervising the implementation of the Act. If disagreements arise, which could concern the amount charged, the time taken to respond or whether an exemption has been properly applied, the ICO arbitrates.
The ICO could either support the public authority's decision or request it to take steps to comply with the legislation. If a public authority fails to comply, the ICO will notify the High Court, which will deal with it as if it had committed a contempt of court. Both the complainant and the public authority have a right to appeal to the Information Tribunal and thereafter, on a point of law only, to the courts. When the ICO and a public authority dispute whether an exemption has been correctly applied to retain information 'in the public interest' a department can issue a 'Ministerial veto.' However, this will be subject to judicial review and will be reported to Parliament by the ICO for scrutiny by MPs and peers.