CAMPAIGNERS in Suffolk are today counting down to the day when councils across the county will be forced to reveal their secret files.Council chiefs are bracing themselves for a huge extra workload as the Freedom of Information Act comes into force, allowing the public to request all sorts of items which were previously not published.
CAMPAIGNERS in Suffolk are today counting down to the day when councils across the county will be forced to reveal their secret files.
Council chiefs are bracing themselves for a huge extra workload as the Freedom of Information Act comes into force, allowing the public to request all sorts of items which were previously not published.
From January 1, the public will be able to seek any information "published" within a council - including internal emails, memos, minutes of internal meetings, and documents and letters about projects.
Being embarrassed by the exposure of the information will no longer be an excuse to withhold it.
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There will be stiff penalties for anyone dodging the act or destroying documents, including up to two years' jail and unlimited fines.
Councils will be able to charge for the work in providing the paperwork and have to provide it within 20 days.
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Freedom of Information expert David Flockhart told a training seminar at Suffolk Coastal council that one of the main areas of interest will be in contracts awarded by councils.
He expected authorities to be inundated with requests from firms which missed out on work, trying to find out why they didn't get the job for which they tendered.
Under the Act, they will be entitled to see all the paperwork, letters, internal discussion minutes, and their competitors tenders and rates of work, previously regarded as commercially sensitive and private information.
Suffolk Coastal officers have been advised to expect an influx of inquiries about Felixstowe south seafront, Sizewell, travellers, Bentwaters, Hollesley Bay prison, asylum seekers, and policies on terrorism and disorder.
Mr Flockhart, of IPA Ltd, said there would still be cases where councils could keep information secret.
The Act included exemptions which protect papers relating to such things as security matters, personal information about council officers and individuals outside the authority, law enforcement, and investigations.
The council would also not be forced to release information which could be obtained from other sources.
The Act aims to increase openness and applies to all public bodies - including the police and health authorities. It is reckoned that there are 110,000 public bodies in the UK.
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