The Campaign for Freedom of Information played a central role in persuading the government to introduce the Freedom of Information Act and in substantially improving what started out as an extremely weak bill. We campaign to improve and defend the Freedom of Information Act, advise the public on using it, encourage good practice by public authorities and provide FOI training.
The Campaign is a non-profit organisation which is not affiliated to any political party. Our main funding comes from charitable sources including the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, Trust for London, Indigo Trust, the Primrose Hill Trust and from individual donations. We’ve also recently been funded by the Gannett Foundation and Lush Charity Pot. The Campaign is a small organisation with just two staff: Maurice Frankel, the director, who has worked for it since it was set up in 1984 and Katherine Gundersen who has been with the Campaign since 1999.
The Campaign was set up in 1984 by citizen campaigner Des Wilson to secure FOI legislation for the UK. We have drafted and promoted a series of private members’ bills, several of which became law as:
- the Access to Personal Files Act 1987 (access to individual housing and social work files)
- the Access to Medical Reports Act 1988 (access to medical reports for employers and insurers)
- the Environment and Safety Information Act 1988 (access to various enforcement notices)
- the Access to Health Records Act 1990 (a general right of access to health records)
We also drafted a bill to reform section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911, a catch-all provision which made the unauthorised disclosure of any official information a criminal offence. The bill, introduced by Conservative MP Richard Shepherd in 1988, led the government to replace section 2 with a substantially more limited Official Secrets Act in 1989.
In February 1993 another of our private member’s bills, for a full FOI Act, was introduced by Labour MP Mark Fisher and debated for a total of 21 hours in the House of Commons. We later learnt that it had led John Major’s government to consider committing itself to FOI. Ultimately it opted for the non-statutory Code of Practice on Access to Government Information instead. The Code, introduced in 1994, provided an FOI-like regime with complaints going to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. It received little publicity and was not greatly used.
In 1997 the Labour Government published a positive white paper on FOI (Your Right to Know, Cm 3818). This was followed by an extremely weak draft FOI bill. This was subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by committees in the Commons and Lords both of which endorsed our criticisms of the proposals. We took the lead in proposing amendments to the bill during its Parliamentary passage with significant success. Our press releases and briefings on the bill are available here.
The former Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who took the Act through Parliament, later said that Labour’s manifesto commitment to FOI was “the product of a brilliant campaign by the Campaign for Freedom of Information.”
Defending the Act
Before becoming prime minister, Tony Blair committed himself to FOI in a 1996 speech at the Campaign’s annual awards. You can read the text of his speech or listen to him giving it. He said: “It is not some isolated constitutional reform that we are proposing with a Freedom of Information Act. It is a change that is absolutely fundamental to how we see politics developing in this country…there is still far too much addiction to secrecy and wish to conduct government business behind closed doors”. Mr Blair powerfully made the case for FOI and praised the critical role of the CFOI in promoting it.
But in his 2010 memoirs he took the diametrically opposite view, declaring his earlier support to be that of an “idiot” and a “naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop”. His comments made an equally powerful, if unintentional, case for the continued need for the CFOI. Once politicians find that it’s their own decisions which come under scrutiny they are liable to undermine the legislation, allowing the jungle of secrecy to grow back. Active campaigning to protect FOI is essential.
The FOI Act has been under repeated attack since it came into force.
- In 2006-07 the Blair government attempted to make it substantially easier for authorities to refuse requests. Its proposals would have allowed vast numbers of requests to be refused out of hand, regardless of their merits.
- In the same year a private member’s bill sought to remove Parliament and thus MPs’ expenses from the Act
- In 2009 the government proposed to exclude all cabinet papers from the Act. If this measure had succeeded, cabinet committee papers about matters such as BSE would still be excluded from FOI.
- In 2012 there was a move to exclude all Whitehall policy discussions from access. Former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell and former Home Secretary Jack Straw both called for this during the Justice select committee’s post legislative scrutiny of the Act, though the committee went on to reject the proposal.
- In 2012 the coalition government announced in its response to the Justice Committee’s report that it was considering a series of measures to make it easier to refuse FOI requests on cost grounds, reviving measures previously attempted by the Blair administration. The government said it would decide which options it preferred and consult on them. By the time it left office, in May 2015, no consultation paper had been published. But the proposals almost certainly remain on the Ministry of Justice’s wish-list and are likely to re-surface.
These proposed restrictions have been successfully resisted. In each case the CFOI’s unique expertise has been crucial.
However, in 2010 the Act was amended to prevent access to information about communications between a public authority and the monarch or the next two in line to the throne.
The current threat
The Conservative government is likely to be considering three sets of new restrictions to the FOI Act. These are likely to involve: preventing the disclosure of government policy discussions, strengthening the ministerial veto and reviving proposals to it easier for authorities to refuse FOI requests on cost grounds. You can read more about the current threat here.
The Campaign’s distinctive logo – a series of security classifications crossed out by a red line – appears on most of the materials on this site. It was designed for the Campaign when we were launched in 1984 and has been in continuous use since then on our publications, letterhead and web site. We’d be grateful if you would not use it without acknowledging that it is the Campaign’s logo.