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Council IT not ready for Freedom of Information

BIll Goodwin
With less than 10 weeks left to go, local authorities are still not ready to meet the demands of the Freedom of Information Act, which comes into force on 1 January 2005.

Despite having four years to prepare, councils have delayed investing in IT systems to manage and process requests for information from the public, MPs heard last week.

Local government leaders told the constitutional affairs select committee that some authorities could struggle to process freedom of information requests within the statutory 20-day deadline.

This could place them in conflict with information commissioner Richard Thomas. "I will not be able to be tolerant of public authorities who have not taken advantage of nearly four years to prepare for the Act," he said.

Councils have been reluctant to spend money on document retrieval systems to comply with the Act because of the cost and uncertainty about the number of freedom of information requests, MPs were told.

Local Government Association vice-chairman Peter Chalke told the committee, "When you are very short of money and you are looking at overspends on social

services, education and such things, it is very hard to go to the public and say we are going to spend £7m on an electronic system."

Lydia Pollard, e-government strategy adviser for the Improvement and Development Agency, said that although she felt councils would be able to process straightforward requests, complex request could pose difficulties.

Kate Mountain, chief executive of council IT directors group the Society of ITManagement, told Computer Weekly that local authorities had been too stretched over the past four years with a flood of e-government targets to give freedom of information systems top priority.

"Public services are being asked to modernise at an astonishing rate and that does make it very difficult to meet all those deadlines."

She urged the information commissioner to take a sympathetic approach to the problems they faced meeting the 20-day deadline.

Concern grows over IT's ability to meet Freedom of Information requests >>

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