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

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading and innovative con...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Alan Titchmarsh MP?  

Alan Titchmarsh MP? His independent manifesto gets my vote

Jane Merrick
 

I’ll support England’s women, but it’s not like men’s football – and that’s a good thing

Matthew Norman
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue