In short, like many other things – it’s a crucially important part of democratic life when you can make use of it, but when you’re subject to it, it’s a different matter.
Up until now, Labour has been very slow in speaking out in favour of the Act it introduced, despite the very real threats it faces if coalition plans to implement stringent new rules on how it can be used are carried through.
This hasn’t been a surprise – Labour first moved to stifle the scope of the Act within two years of it coming into force, and we all know Tony Blair considers it his biggest mistake while in office – which might surprise those still struggling to rebuild their lives in Iraq.
Anyhow, maybe the tide is turning. Today saw the remarkable announcement by justice secretary Chris Grayling that two security firms had overcharged government by tens of millions of pounds for monitoring criminals who, in some cases, were dead.
It has the potential to be quite the scandal.
In response, shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan has issued a number of demands, including that:
“Freedom of Information legislation should be extended to the delivery of public services by the private sector to give greater accountability and transparency.”
The Government’s current position on this is that such arrangements should be expected from a company delivering what is essentially a public-sector service, but that no legislation is required, it should be voluntary.
Mr Khan said:
“When it comes to keeping the public safe, we cannot afford to be so reliant on the same few giant corporations. More and more of the justice system is being privatised at a time when there are serious concerns being raised about two of the biggest private contractors with the Government.
Almost £800million of the Ministry of Justice budget went to just five companies in 2012/13, all of which is beyond the transparency of freedom of information. This isn’t a healthy or proper way to efficiently spend taxpayers money and I’m worried that there is too cosy a relationship between Government and these companies.”
This might be opportunistic politics from Labour, but it’s encouraging to see FOI being spoken about in this way by front-bench politicians.
The first job, however, should be for Labour to oppose the tightening of FOI legislation which would make it almost impossible for any information a body didn’t want to get out, to get out without relying on a whistleblower.