Leading article: A new era of openness? Hardly


Members of Parliament should be natural champions of the Freedom of Information Act. These men and women, who are directly accountable to the electorate, ought to be active guardians of the Act's powers. But, sadly, this does not seem to be the case.

Last year, the Commons tried to resist a request, brought under the Act, that MPs should make all the details of their travel expenses public. The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, ruled that there was no legitimate reason why such information should not be in the public domain. But MPs fought on, challenging Mr Thomas' ruling at a tribunal.

Although they eventually lost, MPs' resistance to the Act, in as far as it applies to them, continues. In Parliament today, a private member's Bill proposed by the former Conservative chief whip, David Maclean, comes under scrutiny. The Bill aims to prevent MPs' letters, written on behalf of constituents, from being released to the press and public under the Act.

Its supporters argue it is necessary to protect their constituents' right to privacy. But constituents' personal details are already protected under the Act. The more plausible explanation is that the Act, as it stands, has the potential to embarrass MPs by exposing their shortcomings. We shall have to wait to see how much support this Bill commands in the Commons, but evidence is mounting that a considerable number of MPs feel that the Act should not apply to them.

The Act is under threat on another flank, too. Ministers are attempting to impose a more stringent financial limit on requests, and proposing that a series of requests from the same organisation, such as a newspaper, should in future be considered as one. All this has one obvious purpose: to make it easier for public bodies to refuse information. According to the Government's figures an extra 17,000 requests would be turned down as a result of these new regulations.

The new era of openness we were promised when the Act was passed two years ago has failed to materialise. Half of all requests to central Government departments are being turned down and 10 per cent are answered late. The Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee argued last year that some public bodies are breaking the spirit of the law by tying up requests in red tape. It also found that the Information Commissioner was failing to rule on appeals quickly enough. It seems the Government has not given Mr Thomas the resources he needs to do his job properly.

It is clear that the Act needs to be strengthened considerably. The shameful reality is that our MPs and ministers seem intent on watering it down.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Riyadh is setting itself up as region’s policeman

Lina Khatib
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor