Hot issue: Will the Freedom of Information Act provide full disclosure?

The Freedom of Information Act, which came into full effect on January 1, gives us statutory access to information held by public organisations. But exemptions have raised questions about what information will be available.

YES - Barry Hugill, director of communications, Liberty

Liberty has always believed that the Government is shrouded in largely unnecessary secrecy. It's a scandal, for example, that Labour still refuses to publish the full legal advice offered by the Attorney General on the legality, or otherwise, of the war on Iraq.

In 1997 Labour promised open, transparent government. David Clark was given the job of drawing up a Freedom of Information Bill. He did an excellent job and was rewarded with the sack. His Bill was replaced with a poor substitute. The Act grants exemption after exemption and allows ministers the final say in deciding what we should be allowed to know. Anything to do with the economy can remain secret, as can anything relevant to the "formulation of government policy". We won't be allowed to know anything pertaining to law enforcement, which means, for example, that we won't be able to see material relating to racism in the police force. And then there's the exemption concerning "commercial interest", or anything to do with defence or international relations.

Put crudely, it looks as if there's a lot more we won't be allowed to see than we will be allowed to see. We can only hope that the Government remains true to its original manifesto pledge to openness. Only time will tell.

NO - David Thomas, legal adviser, British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection

The Act won't result in full information, given all the exemptions, but it should be a big improvement on the previous situation, if applied properly. The BUAV has long called for detailed information about animal experiments (what is done to animals, the data produced, any consideration given to non-animal alternatives) to be made public, so that informed debate can take place to avoid test duplication.

Much information should now be accessible, despite the exemptions. But the Home Office may have other ideas. It is encouraging researchers to produce summaries of licence applications for animal experiments (and even training them how to write them), presumably intending that this is all that will be disclosable. If so, it is likely to be disappointed. Under the Act the public is, subject to the exemptions, entitled to information held by public authorities in the form in which it is held. Summaries do not suffice.

Controversial issues such as vivisection provide a litmus test for the new regime. The Information Commissioner is likely to be kept busy over coming months if access to information is resisted.

YES - Joanne Rule, chief executive, CancerBACUP

The Freedom of Information Act is hugely significant for patients. It means that, for the first time, we have the statutory right to ask questions about how money is spent, how decisions are made, and the performance of doctors, hospitals, health authorities and other public bodies. The more questions we ask, the more information is likely to be released as a matter of course. And access to information is what makes patient choice meaningful.

But before information can be released, it must first be systematically collected, and there are challenges facing the NHS in this area. In a recent CancerBACUP survey, cancer networks reported variations in the type and quantity of data being collected and inadequacies in systems for doing this. There have also been worrying gaps in the collection of figures on the prescribing patterns of recommended cancer drugs. Without this information, it's impossible to know whether these recommendations are being implemented.

Freedom of information on matters of public interest will only come about when there's a shift towards a more transparent culture to drive up standards in the quality and quantity of data available. The Act is a positive step towards that, which can only be a good thing for patients.

YES - Phil Michaels, legal adviser, Foe UK

Information is power and the Freedom of Information Act marks a significant step towards genuine citizen empowerment. By giving all members of the public the basic right of access to publicly held information, the Act represents a constitutional milestone.

What's needed now is a change of cultures. Whitehall (and other public authorities) must quickly move from a culture of secrecy to a culture of transparency. Meanwhile, the rest of us must shift from a culture of "they'll never tell me that" to a culture of "they have to tell me that".

The Act is a powerful tool for good. Like any tool, it's not intended to be decorative - it needs to be used. First of all, people must start requesting information. No magic formula or legal incantation is needed: a simple email to any public authority asking for information will suffice. Second, if you're refused information, then kick up a fuss. Do not assume that the law is defective. Complain to the Information Commissioner, whose role it is to uphold the law and promote good practice.

The Act has the power to change public life for the better. Whether it actually does so is down to all of us.

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