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

Click to follow
The Independent Online

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.