Caroline Pidgeon writes…Why open government is good government and why it is time to defend the freedom of information act

The announcement this Summer that Ministers are now seeking to ‘review’ the freedom of information act had a most depressing ring to it.

For a start any fundamental review of freedom of information (FOI) legislation is hardly necessary. Just three years ago the cross party House of Commons Justice Committee, chaired by Alan Beith, carried out an extensive investigation into the operations of the Act.  It reported that: “The Freedom of Information Act has been a significant enhancement of our democracy. Overall our witnesses agreed that the Act was working well. The right to access information has improved openness, transparency and accountability.”

Few pieces of legislation get that kind of endorsement.

Indeed the Justice Committee not only defended the Act but also highlighted where it should be strengthened. For example it criticised public authorities that kick requests into the long grass by holding interminable internal reviews.

So why, once again, is this useful and much needed legislation, potentially under threat by a review that is merely looking at proposals to weaken the Act?

One explanation is that there are myths about the Act which keep resurfacing, often peddled by people who simply dislike the overall concept of open government.

The first myth is the claim that the Act is an incredibly expensive burden for local councils and other public bodies.

Yes, the act does come with some costs, but as the Justice Committee so clearly stated some of the costs are often self imposed. The committee robustly stated: “Evidence from our witnesses suggests that reducing the cost of freedom of information can be achieved if the way public authorities deal with requests is well-thought through. This requires leadership and focus by senior members of public organisations. Complaints about the cost of freedom of information will ring hollow when made by public authorities which have failed to invest the time and effort needed to create an efficient freedom of information scheme.”

Moreover, it should be added that in some cases the release of information through FOI requests saves public money, in some cases huge amounts of money.

The second big myth about the FOI legislation is the claim it undermines a “safe space” for policy development.  Perhaps not surprisingly Tony Blair is the leading proponent of this claim.

At present section 35 of the Act allows the withholding of policy development work private office communications and letters between ministers.  Section 36 allow ministers to withhold other information as well which would undermine safe space of discussion.

However, for some people these provisions simply are not enough.  They detest that there is a public interest test attached to these provisions.

Once again, let’s look back at what the Justice Committee revealed. Its verdict could not be clearer, stating: “We do not believe that there has been any general harmful effect at all on the ability to conduct business in the public service, and in our view the additional burdens are outweighed by the benefits.”

I suggest that instead of putting the Act under scrutiny we should start now putting its critics under the microscope.

We need stronger, not weaker legislation as I argued last year on Lib Dem Voice. Simon Hughes’ subsequent success in getting Network Rail included under the law’s remit, was an important step forward, but quite frankly we still need to go much further in ensuring far more public organisations are covered. Organisations that also receive significant public funding, such as train operating companies and major contractors to the public sector should also be included within its remit.

It is hard to exaggerate some of the beneficial effects that have flowed from freedom of information legislation.  It has exposed waste, incompetence and neglect of vulnerable people, including for example the record of so many children in local authority care  who go missing each year.

The daily media coverage and scrutiny of many public bodies would be emasculated if we now weakened our FOI legislation. If you need convincing just look at how many important news stories the Guardian  used  FOI requests in just the first two years of the legislation’s existence.  More recently we have discovered the huge cover up within central government over the real levels of pollution created by diesel engines. And don’t for one minute think the legislation is only used by national media outlets – it is equally vital for local newspapers, not to mention many small campaigning groups.

Defending FOI legislation should be an issue that should unite each and every Liberal Democrat. We should all be using the legislation and defending it.

I hope this briefing from the Campaign for Freedom of Information is useful in the battle we must now face.

 

* Caroline Pidgeon is the Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member and chair of the London Assembly Transport Committee

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3 Comments

  • Antony Hook 24th Sep '15 - 4:06pm

    Caroline is entirely right about this.

    FoI is under threat and any curb on it disempowers the public.

  • Richard Underhill 25th Sep '15 - 9:44pm

    Caroline Pidgeon made a good speech at conference. her interview with the BBC Sunday Politics is available on Freesat, which means that the viewer does not need to live in London. The whole of the south east is affected by these issues in ther same way that air pollution from the continent affects Bournemouth (UKIP notwithstanding).

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