An inside job: The committee examining how to reform the FoI act looks like a Conservative hit squad

Democracy and transparency go hand-in-hand - any severing of the bond should be resisted in the strongest of terms

Editorial
Friday 09 October 2015 20:13
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Jack Straw will be part of the committee charged with reforming FoI Act
Jack Straw will be part of the committee charged with reforming FoI Act

It is, notoriously, Tony Blair’s “biggest regret”. Though Mr Blair ushered in the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act in 2000, the former Prime Minister’s autobiography describes how he now “quakes” at his own “imbecility”. The Act – which grants the public access to documents that detail the intimate workings of government – has never found friends inside Whitehall. Civil servants complain that they cannot raise controversial ideas for fear of being later exposed by an FoI request. A “Post-it note” culture has grown up in response, whereby mandarins keep much of what they say off the record, surely to the detriment of departmental organisation.

So it is possible to sympathise, to some degree, with the establishment of a committee to investigate how the FoI Act might be reformed in the interest of good governance. If there is a way to lessen the burden on government officials without impeding the public’s right to know, let it be heard.

Unfortunately, in practice, the committee looks more like a hit squad, set up by the Conservatives to blow a hole through the principle of Freedom of Information. It includes former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, a long-term opponent of the Act, and Lord Carlile, who attacked the press over publishing the leaks of Edward Snowden, alongside several others who can be expected to favour some form of closing the door. Not a single representative has a record of support for political transparency.

Those who fear a “stitch-up” would not have had their concerns allayed by the committee’s first official briefing yesterday, in which it was revealed that the body itself will not be open to FoI requests, and transcripts of its meetings will not be made publicly available.

It is perhaps unsurprising, in such a context, that a spokesperson – whom the press are not allowed to name – said that it would consider charging citizens to make FoI requests. Complying with FoIs is expensive in so far as it takes up governmental time, and stronger safeguards could indeed be put in place to counter those few troublemakers whose only goal is to bog down officials with paperwork. But to impose a fee on the vast majority who seek to expose governmental wrongdoing would count as a blow against the public interest.

Many departments have already proven themselves adept at sidestepping their legal requirement to satisfy FoI requests. The Department for Work and Pensions fought bitterly against campaigners, often disabled and out of work themselves, who sought to identify how many suicides can be linked to the Government’s Work Programme. Charging interested citizens and journalists to file an FoI request would only make it easier for those who wish to dodge public scrutiny to do so.

Lest it be forgotten, it was FoI requests that led to the revelation of the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2008; MP Cyril Smith’s attempted cover-up of his sexual abuse of children; and, most recently, the UK’s participation in Syrian air strikes without parliamentary approval. Simply put, too much of the governmental dissatisfaction with FoI stems from the desire to avoid uncomfortable questions.

Even Mr Blair admits as much. It was not solely concern for public officials that fostered his sense of “regret”, but the realisation that Labour had “our own skeletons rattling around the cupboard”, which were “just as repulsive” as those possessed by the Conservatives. What the FoI Act truly needs is to be protected and expanded. There is no defence, for example, for failing to extend FoI to private companies contracted to take on public services, as the Public Accounts Committee suggested last year. Democracy and transparency go hand-in-hand. Any severing of the bond, as the FoI committee appears intent on causing, should be resisted in the strongest of terms.

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