The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) came into effect on 1 January 2005 and gives the public access to all recorded information held by 100,000 different 'public authorities' in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. (Scotland has its own legislation.) Its range extends from central government all the way down to rural cop shops.
All authorities must reply within 20 working days of a request for information being made. If replies are not satisfactory, the public can seek redress through the information commissioner. Campaign for Freedom of Information director Maurice Frankel says: 'This will give ordinary people the chance to challenge important decisions on what is actually happening, rather than what politicians say is being done.'
The FOIA has even gone some way to opening up private companies that are responsible for public contracts, thus making it easier for us to probe New Labour's love affair with Public Private Partnerships, for example. But Geoff Hoon and his entourage in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will be less exposed. Arms manufacturers have flexed their muscles, and will be protected by legally enforceable confidentiality agreements. The MoD has also lobbied the Department of Constitutional Affairs (the ministry responsible for drawing up the act) to delete guidance urging civil servants to reject confidentiality agreements 'whenever possible'.
The FOIA allows authorities to withhold information for an annoying array of reasons: if, for example, disclosure would prejudice defence, international relations, law enforcement, legal advice or collective cabinet responsibility. A £450 cap on the cost of finding information (the public must pay for anything in excess of £100) is also grounds for refusal. You can't get information 'about the formulation of government policy'. And forget about the security and intelligence services.
But not all exemptions are absolute: many only apply where disclosure is harmful to the relevant authority; and most information must be disclosed if it is in the public interest. This even applies to the old get-out clause of 'commercial confidentiality'.
Before you get too excited, though, ministers have final veto. Granville Williams, editor of Free Press, the newsletter of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, says: 'The act might well be useful for information in a local capacity, but this veto makes central government very strong.'
Special rules applying to environmental information are set out in the new Environmental Information Regulations. These are much more generous. So try and frame your inquiry so that it has an environmental aspect to it. The wide-ranging definition of 'environmental information' includes land-use planning, public utilities, health and energy.