Freedom of Information faces its biggest threat yet – here’s why

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It shouldn’t be a surprise that a Government is planning to deliver what could be a devastating blow to the Freedom of Information Act. It probably should be a surprise, however, that it has taken so long.

This lunchtime, the Government, still in the first flush of ‘oh, so we really are in charge, aren’t we!’ thinking, announced a ‘commission’ to look at the Freedom of Information Act.

The Government’s position is pretty plain. Michael Gove, the former FOI-dodging education secretary who tried to claim sending emails via gmail and not government accounts meant they weren’t covered by the Act, set out the government’s view pretty clearly shortly after becoming justice secretary.

At the heart of this commission is the concern that civil servants don’t feel they can speak freely for fear of what they say, or more aptly write, ending up becoming public via the Freedom of Information Act. Call me a cynic if you wish, but I spy a smokescreen aimed at making it harder for those in power to be held accountable by those who ultimately pay their wages – you and I.

Why do I think that? Some reasons:

1. You need a safe space? You got one already

The central argument appears to be that governments can’t function if the fear of accountability hangs over their heads all the time. Section 35 of the Freedom of Information Act provides governments with the right to refuse requests if they conflict with the formulation of Government policy. There are several other exemptions which cover many other areas of central government. 

2. It doesn’t take a Commission to come up with a solution

The government argues it wants to be the most transparent in the world. Noble aim, but the commission proves it’s probably just words. If it really wished to be the most transparent in the world, it would tell civil servants and politicians that their advice, memos, reports, minutes or whatever will most likely be published if someone asks for them – but that names and any references to who they are will be redacted. Then the public could see what those working within Government were thinking, and how decisions were made. Is that really so bad? What are these civil servants thinking which makes them worried about being associated with their thoughts?

3. The Tory track record

The Conservative track record on openness and transparency is patch at best. Many of the big ideas – spending data anyone? – were gimmicks pushed on to authorities through bullying tactics rathe than going to the hassle of enshrining them in law. David Cameron was a critic of the FOI Act during the last parliament, while this article from Newsnight about how the Cabinet Office actively works to ensure information isn’t released is quite frightening.

4. The Labour track record

Labour might have introduced FOI, but crikey those at the helm have made enough noise about their regret at doing so. Tony Blair claims it is one of his biggest regrets (war in Iraq anyone), while Jack Straw, home secretary at the time, was equally as regretful about it (again, surely the war in Iraq should be weighing on his mind more) in his memoirs. As someone who was caught using the trappings of parliament to impress people who might give him work once he retired just weeks before an election, is Jack Straw really the right man to be included on this Commission? It’s hardly a ringing endorsement for fair play.

5. Oh, the cabinet office

Tucked away in the announcement is the fact that the Cabinet Office now is responsible for FOI. The Cabinet Office is also consistently the worst performing government department when it comes to FOI. It is regularly censured by the Information Commissioner. We’re into turkey running Christmas territory here. And lets not forget, it was the Cabinet Office which so long fought with the BBC over releasing files relating to the Hillsborough disaster – a battle which lasted over three years. There can’t be a single person with an ounce of common sense who believes the Cabinet Office war right to block information proved by both an inquiry and the ongoing inquests to be of public interest. A watertight ‘safe space’ for officials would surely ensure such documents never saw the light of day in the future.

6. What about the last FOI review?

It’s only in the last few years that we had a very thorough review into FOI, led by a Commons select committee. All sorts of stuff was on the table then, including excluding universities from FOI, and charging for access to information. The committee proposed very few changes, and it appears the Government’s solution is to order a new inquiry, because the last answer from the last inquiry was wrong. That’s why the line about ‘burden on public authorities’ is so key. Expect councils to flock toward Westminster insisting that they need to charge for access to information.

7. Data alone is not enough

Politicians aren’t stupid. Neither are civil servants. They do, however, often tend to be out of touch. The argument that ‘open data’ makes a government transparent is utter bobbins. Open data helps people to see the data being used to inform decisions, and see the impact of previous decisions. It does not give context, reasons or motives. Open data, in this context, is being used as a way of watering down the public’s right to know.

Politicians time and again carp on about wanting to be open and honest. Very few turn those words into actions. The only difference between this attack by the Tories and others before is that is so blatant. Make no mistake, this isn’t a tweak or a change, it’s an all out assault on the public’s right to know – and journalists everywhere need to fight back. 

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