Announcing the release of the report, Mr Thomas took the opportunity to urge public bodies to prepare for the coming into force of the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) in January next year.
"I'm encouraged by the commitment voiced and demonstrated among public bodies to Freedom of Information but fine words are not enough," said the Commissioner, "Training is underway, FOI champions have been appointed and a culture change has been promised but the real test will come in just five months time when the Act comes into full force."
Freedom of Information
The Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, will require a transformation in the way public authorities deal with information requests from the general public. Scotland has its own equivalent legislation – the FOI (Scotland) Act.
Some parts of FOIA (and its Scottish equivalent) are already in force, but many important provisions of both Acts are not due to take effect until 1st January 2005. These include:
A general right of access to information held by public authorities in the course of carrying our their public functions, subject to certain conditions and exemptions;
A duty to disclose exempted information - in most cases - where it is in the public interest to do so; and
Publication schemes - each public authority will have to adopt a scheme for the publication of information. These must be approved by the Commissioner, will specify the classes of information the authority intends to publish, the manner of publication and whether the information is available to the public free of charge.
"Public bodies have had nearly four years to prepare for FOI and they must be ready to hit the ground running when FOI comes into force – ignorance or lack of preparation time are not excuses we will be able to accept," warned Mr Thomas.
But the Office of the Information Commissioner has also been hard at work preparing for the FOIA. According to the Annual Report, most of the work has focused on two areas:
developing an understanding and policy in respect of the application of the Act, so that staff will be able to deal effectively with complaints as they come in, and
approving the publication schemes developed by local authorities.
Preparations have also covered new Environmental Information Regulations, which will take effect at the same time as the FOIA, and will give the public a right of access to information on environmental issues such as pollution, land use and air quality.
The annual report also explains the Commissioner's position on Data Protection, which has been highlighted over the past year by the Bichard Report into the police handling of data relating to convicted murderer Ian Huntley.
In the annual report Thomas acknowledged that some Data Protection rules are too complicated.
"My task," he said, "has to be to de-mystify the law, explaining things as clearly as possible and exploring the scope for simplification. We must make it as easy as possible for organisations and individuals to understand what to do and expect. There is still much to be done."
Highlights of the year, according to Thomas, include:
A positive response to the agency's Employment Code, covering surveillance in the workplace;
A Make Data Protection Simpler Initiative launched last July;
Calling on the Government to provide the strongest possible safeguards when ID cards are introduced;
The implementation, together with guidance, of new Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations – dealing with spam and cookies; and
The creation of a higher media profile for data protection and FOI issues.
In addition, the report reveals that over the past year the IOC received 11,664 complaints, mostly under the Data Protection Act, but with 1,670 relating to the new Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations. The IOC also received a number of complaints concerning incorrect consumer credit files.