Leading article: The age of openness ends before it has begun

Share

In certain respects the Freedom of Information Act has been a success in the two years since it came into force. Some valuable information has been released - from the recipients of EU farm subsidies to the Chequers guest list - that would not otherwise have seen the light of day for 30 years. But is the Act functioning as we were led to expect? Are we living in the new era of open government that ministers promised us? And here the answer has to be no.

New figures show that half of all requests to central government departments are now being refused. It is impossible to believe that all these are for information that would compromise national security, impede the functioning of government or trample an individual's right to privacy. We can, however, well imagine that much of it might embarrass or shame those in power.

Another cause of concern is the speed - or lack of it - of the official response. The Act stipulates that authorities should reply within 20 days. Yet 10 per cent of all requests made to central government are answered late. The Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee argued this year that some public bodies were breaking the spirit of the law by tying up requests in red tape.

The same Commons committee also criticised the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, for failing to rule on appeals quickly enough. Some applicants have had to wait for more than a year to hear his adjudication. And the backlog of cases is growing. Some of these will set important precedents for the reach of the Act - as ministers well know. The real culprit here, though, is not the Commissioner, but the Government that has given him insufficient resources to do his job. The suspicion has to be that the Government rather likes an overworked and ineffectual watchdog.

It has been suggested that the Commissioner should be directly responsible to - and funded by - Parliament. But even this may not be enough to make the Act work as it should. In September the Commons Speaker, Michael Martin, vetoed a request for the names and salaries of MPs' staff paid for by the taxpayer to be made public, despite a ruling by the Commissioner that there were no legitimate grounds for withholding the information. Parliament has sadly failed to prove itself a consistent champion of freedom of information.

The wider outlook seems far from promising. To its credit, the Government rejected a proposal that there should be a flat-rate fee for submitting each request. But dangers of a different nature loom. The Department for Constitutional Affairs proposed earlier this month that the £600 cost limit on each request should include the time of officials and ministers. It is not hard to see the threat here. Ministers will inevitably be tempted to involve themselves in requests that might reflect badly on them. This modification would make it easier for officials to refuse to release embarrassing information on cost grounds.

The Government is also proposing that a series of requests from the same organisation, such as a newspaper, could be considered as one request, even if they relate to different topics. This, too, would widen the scope for the Government to refuse reasonable requests from journalists on cost grounds.

Where is the Government's justification for all this? Two years ago ministers were "willing to trust the people", or so they said. Now they claim that their priority is to minimise the cost to the taxpayer of the functioning of the Act. Excuse our scepticism. There are other areas where the Government can cut costs if it needs to. The British public's right to know still leaves much to be desired. It needs to be expanded, not curtailed.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore