Caroline Pidgeon AM writes: In praise of Freedom of Information legislation

Parliament ActsTony Blair’s latest comments about Iraq, seeking to defend his disastrous actions back in 2003, have generated extensive media coverage.  However, there are other views expressed by Tony Blair which also deserve attention, most notably his incredible views over freedom of information.

But, before examining his comments lets go back 20 years or so.

For some people it might be hard to remember how Government departments and public bodies often operated.  Holding onto vast amounts of information, however mundane or non-controversial, was considered totally appropriate by most Government departments, quangos and local authorities.

One of the most significant constitutional developments of the last Labour Government was the passing of the 2000 Freedom of Information Act, which finally  came into force in  January 2005.  This was legislation which Liberal Democrats had called for over many years.

With the implementation of this legislation a huge change took place in government departments and town halls across the country.  Instead of assuming that most information was automatically secret or restricted in some way, many public bodies were forced to work to a different principle.  The new law meant most information could be requested by the public, unless there were important and clearly defined reasons why it should not be released. Most significantly more enlightened public bodies have discovered that instead of answering specific freedom of information requests it is just cheaper and easier to routinely release online huge amounts of data and other information at the earliest opportunity.

However, having passed such progressive legislation does the former Labour Prime Minister wish to celebrate this historic constitutional change, which has empowered thousands of people, reduced corruption and public waste, and increased accountability of so many public organisations?

Well, not exactly is the simple answer!

His current views on freedom of information legislation are set out in his biography:

Looking back he now says this about his record of delivering the 2000 Freedom of Information Act:

“You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop,”

“There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”

In recent years Tony Blair has even been criticised by MPs for failing to even co-operate with an investigation into the 2000 Freedom of Information Act.

These views and actions of a former Labour Prime Minister are an incredible contrast to what he promised the British people before 1997.

It really is no exaggeration to say that open government leads to good government.

If anyone needs any evidence of the positive impact of freedom of information legislation just take a quick look at this BBC report.

Speaking personally I have used freedom of information legislation on a wide range of issues, stretching from highlighting how people have been ripped off and overcharged when using Oyster pay as you go, through to revealing the extensive problem of local authority children going missing and being at risk of being exploited.

Most recently I have used freedom of information legislation to ensure that the expenses and overseas international travel of board members of Crossrail are finally published.

Freedom of information legislation is something Liberal Democrats should defend and seek to strengthen.

Indeed, there are still too many publicly funded bodies, most notably Network Rail, which are actually exempted from the legislation.  That has to change and I believe Simon Hughes MP in his role as a Justice Minster will ensure it does this year.  I would  also like to see it extended to other bodies that are funded in large part by the public purse and run public contracts such as Train Operating Companies and contractors such as Serco!

Changes to the secrecy over section 106 planning agreements are also much needed and I hope Southwark Liberal Democrats are successful in their long standing campaign.

Unlike Tony Blair let’s take pride in our freedom of information legislation.

Giving power to citizens and ensuring every public body is held to account is what defines Liberal Democrats.

* Caroline Pidgeon is a Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member and Deputy Chair of the London Assembly Transport Committee

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6 Comments

  • Richard Dean 30th Jun '14 - 12:43pm

    Is this a piece about FOI, or a piece about being nasty to Blair?

    There are good reasons to have lots of information available. Politicians and civil servants make decisions that affect our lives. Public scrutiny can prevent bad decisions being made and help to reverse bad decisions when they are.

    There are also plenty of contexts where information should be withheld, particularly in the general realms of national security and personal privacy.

    And there are borderlines that need to be defined, and which people can use for nefarious purposes.

  • “Unlike Tony Blair let’s take pride in our freedom of information legislation. Giving power to citizens and ensuring every public body is held to account is what defines Liberal Democrats.”

    When are we going to see the NHS risk register then?

  • I think it’s entirely reasonable that a piece on freedom of information should be nasty about Blair. He deserves it. It’s his one regret from government, the one thing he wishes he hadn’t approved amongst all others. What an extraordinary… man he is.

  • I think Freedom of Information has become a substitute for open and collaborative policy making.

  • It is not beng “nasty” about Blair by simply highlighting how he was such a passionate advocat e of freedom of information legislation pre 1997, and despite actually deliverying the 2000 Freedom of Information Act has then gone on to rubbish the legisation.

    Caroline Pidgeon’s artidcle has a host of links within it to back up all the statements made in her article – I just wish more people putting forwrad an argument , whatever their views, could do the same.

    Great article Caroline!

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