UK is a more democratic nation thanks to rights safeguarded by the Freedom of Information Act

We have mentioned the Act’s great successes in the past, but they bear repeating again

Editorial
Tuesday 22 December 2015 23:32
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The Act has one basic principle at its core: that the public should have access to information held by public authoritie
The Act has one basic principle at its core: that the public should have access to information held by public authoritie

Whatever the motivations of the Government in launching a consultation into the workings of the Freedom of Information Act, the revelation that – among the senior advisers involved, at least – there is so little appetite for a major overhaul is both welcome and reassuring.

It is also a little less surprising now we know that the urge for an amendment to the rules governing the freedom to obtain official information was driven almost solely by the desire to remove the loophole that allowed the publication of Prince Charles’s memos to ministers. Nevertheless, it should come as a relief not only to transparency campaigners and journalists – who, though accused of having a vested interest in maintaining the current functioning of the law, overwhelmingly use it in the interest of proper scrutiny of government – but to all those committed to the principles of democracy.

Though it is now infamously recollected as Tony Blair’s “biggest regret”, when it was introduced in 2000, the Act had one basic principle at its core: that the public should have access to information held by public authorities. And in the years since it has done exactly that.

We have mentioned the Act’s great successes in the past, but they bear repeating again. Without the law the scandal of MPs’ expenses may have never been exposed, nor Cyril Smith’s cover-up of sexual abuse. Some quite shocking stories of misuse of power and trust – including the disposal of miscarried foetuses in hospital clinical waste plants – have only come to light thanks to the freedoms it offers.

By contrast, it has also had something of a sanitising effect on government communications. Whitehall has made herculean efforts to avoid the consequences of the Act. Many of the most sensitive discussions have been taken “offline”, so that no trace of them is recoverable by journalists or campaigners. But that does not mean that it has been ineffective, nor that it needs any immediate rethinking.

There were concerns, which this newspaper shared, that the list of committee members called to consider the performance of the Act constituted something of a stitch-up. It included such figures as Jack Straw, a known opponent of freedom of information, and Lord Carlile, who criticised the press for publishing information which entered the public domain thanks to the US whistleblower Edward Snowden. However, the influence of these individuals may be less significant than previously feared. As we report today, government sources have revealed that Sir Jeremy Heywood, the head of the Civil Service, and Matthew Hancock, the minister for the Cabinet Office, are committed to maintaining freedom of information. Mr Hancock is understood to oppose the introduction of a fee for FoI requests – wisely, given that this amounts to a tax on democracy – and even Sir Jeremy’s predecessor, Sir Bob Kerslake, has warned about the risks attached to rolling back any freedom for the citizen to access public information.

With individuals such as these speaking out, the suggestion that Whitehall is overburdened by the costs of FoI is blown apart. A rewriting of the law appears less and less likely. And rightly so.

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