Back in October, the Government started a consultation on the future of the Freedom of Information Act, which closes on Friday 20 November. Before the deadline, I wanted to share why I think it’s important for those who may not know too much about it.
What is the Freedom of Information Act?
It’s a law passed in 2000 when Tony Blair was Prime Minister (he later regretted it and called himself an idiot for getting it on to the statute book). It allows you to request information, data, emails and other documents from public bodies. There is what’s sometimes called a presumption of disclosure, which means officials generally have to give you what you ask for unless they have good reason(s) not to.
The list of public bodies subject to the Act contains familiar organisation such as councils, Government departments, hospital trusts and police forces, as well as more obscure ones such as the Horserace Betting Levy Board, the College of Arms and the The Export Guarantees Advisory Council.
Since the Act came into force in 2005, it’s been used to uncover a wide range of things that we otherwise might not have known.
Why is there a consultation?
That depends who you ask.
The Government says this:
The Commission will review the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (‘the Act’) to consider whether there is an appropriate public interest balance between transparency, accountability and the need for sensitive information to have robust protection, and whether the operation of the Act adequately recognises the need for a ‘safe space’ for policy development and implementation and frank advice. The Commission may also consider the balance between the need to maintain public access to information, and the burden of the Act on public authorities, and whether change is needed to moderate that while maintaining public access to information.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information is concerned that the Government is considering watering down the FOI Act and has appointed members of the panel such as Jack Straw who are on the record as criticising it.
My personal opinion
I use the Freedom of Information Act very often in my work as a journalist. So much so, in fact, that I set up a separate email account specifically to handle the thousands of FOI-related emails I receive and send.
I bother to do this because FOI is a tool to dig up valuable, interesting stories that would otherwise go untold.
- How cemeteries in Huddersfield are running out of space
- How more people in Coventry want to get rid of rats from their properties
- The ‘boy racers’ on the streets in and around Birmingham
I’m sure there are officials who would argue that it’s not for them to my job for me. Perhaps they would agree with Lord Falconer, who said back in 2007:
“The job of the government is not to provide page leads for the papers, but information for the citizen,”
Or perhaps with Chris Grayling, who accused the media in October of using it as a ‘research tool’ to ‘generate stories’.
But I would argue that news stories and ‘information for the citizen’ aren’t mutually exclusive. Those three stories I listed above, as well as numerous others by me, my colleagues and other journalists are indisputably in the public interest, as well as being interesting to read. We also often put in FOI requests on behalf of the public:
— Rob Grant (@grant_rob) November 18, 2015
Why FOI is important
In theory, we could end up with a more protections for FOI as a result of this consultation. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the media who believes that will happen. As it stands, I think we would consider the status quo a victory, and many of us are worried about what the result might be.
I have to declare an interest: if the Freedom of Information Act were watered down, it would make my job more difficult.
But it would also harm our democracy by making it harder for anyone – journalists, opposition politicians (which is almost all of them, sooner or later), activists and members of the public – to find out information that isn’t readily available.
The Act has also done much to change the culture of the British State and civil service, which are still needlessly secretive much of the time. Consider MPs’ expenses: disclosing details of the expense claims was fiercely resisted at first. Now, you can peruse the latest data from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority at your leisure. The fact that you can download this data freely when before you could not is surely a vindication for the public’s right to know.
You may never have put in a Freedom of Information request. I hadn’t until my journalism training. Most of the time, the average citizen’s relationship with the State is relaxed enough that he or she doesn’t need it. But it’s there, if you do. Let’s hope it stays that way.
P.S. If you are interested in the finer points of my submission to the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information, you can see what I wrote here.