A couple of weeks ago, I attended a seminar in Leeds about the Freedom of Information Act (passed in 2000) and the Data Protection Act (passed in 1998).
You might not think that this was the most exciting topics in the world, but the presentation was, in fact, extremely interesting.
You are probably aware that we all have the right to request information from any public authority and that we have a general right of access to all types of recorded information held by Leeds City Council.
The original aim of the Act was to make government, both local and central, more open, accountable and transparent, to change the default position from the need to know to the right to know.
As we all know, utilising the Act has enabled some fairly startling information to be brought into the public domain.
Leeds City Council receives many hundreds of Freedom of Information requests each year – some of them from local residents who genuinely want information on a particular topic, but quite a lot from students and journalists.
Finding the information requested can be a time-consuming process, although there is a provision in the Act that if it is likely to take more than 18 hours, the request can be refused – but the council must be able to substantiate that.
Once your request is sent, the council has a maximum of 20 working days to respond.
To cut down on the amount of time spent on dealing with such a large number of requests, Leeds City Council is making as much information as possible available to us by way of its website.
If you then make a request for information which is already there, you will be told where and how to locate it.
There is a three-stage appeal process if you are not happy with the way your request has been handled, with an Information Tribunal as a last resort.
We were told about one case which had cost the council (ie you and me) in the region of £45,000 because an individual refused to accept that the council had been proved to be right in the first two stages and continued to tribunal – where the council was still proved right.
Unfortunately, there is no provision in the Act for awarding costs, so the Council Tax-payer (ie you and me) ended up footing this particular bill. Something is not quite right there.
I expect that most of you know about the Data Protection Act – especially if you have ever tried to deal with one of the utility companies, for example, and yours is not the name on the account.
I know I have lost my temper on a few occasions when I have tried to sort a problem out and they have refused to speak to me on the grounds that my husband is the account-holder.
You will also have heard a lot about staff leaving memory sticks, files and even laptops, all containing personal and sensitive information, on public transport or putting confidential files in waste bins.
Although there is provision in the Act for individuals who unlawfully obtain or access personal data to be prosecuted, the fine is a maximum of £5,000 in a Magistrates’ Court or an unlimited fine in a Crown Court.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (I didn’t know we had one of those, did you?) is pressing for more effective deterrents, such as a prison term.
We are constantly warned about identity theft and told to be careful what we do with personal information such as addresses.
So what do you do with all your bank statements, old cheque books, utility bills etc?
We bought an incinerator but because we have a small garden, we can only use it on a day when there is absolutely no wind – or we would get complaints from our neighbours.
We have a shredder, but it’s pretty useless. It’s constantly jamming and when you try to unblock it, it sprays shreds of paper all over the floor.
I think the next step is to try one of the companies who will collect confidential or personal paper and shred it for you, otherwise we will drown in paper.
With the increased need for security has come the requirement for endless passwords and security numbers.
I don’t know about you, but I really struggle with them.
Bank cards, bank accounts, every on-line shopping site – it’s impossible to remember them all – and yet we are warned not to write them down.
I think you would need to have a better memory than most of us have to be able to remember them all.
It all makes you realise how much simpler life was before the days of the ATM and the internet and how little progress we have made in reducing the paper mountain.
In fact, I think all the new technology has done is to create more paper than ever. What do you think?