Speech by the Rt.Hon. Tony Blair MP, Leader of the Labour Party at the Campaign for Freedom of Information’s annual Awards ceremony, 25 March 1996.

Transcript of a tape recording

I am particularly pleased to be here to present these awards, and to present awards to such a wide range of people, some of whom have made great breakthroughs, some of whom have actually undertaken acts of very great courage, which is one of the things which came out most strongly from the citations that were made. When we were going through this some weeks ago in preparation for my speech, just to show that we do make these advance preparations several weeks in advance, I knew that there was an M.P.’s award and someone said it was going to be for a fearless intention to debate those issues which the establishment wanted to conceal. I had a vivid thought for a moment of making this award tonight to my good friend and colleague Ron Davies. But actually it was Tony Wright that I gave it to, who has done magnificent work as you all know.

I thought that what came out most strongly was simply the degree to which this is not an issue that, as it were, should concern simply people in the so-called chattering classes. But many of the problems that we are talking about are very basic and very real to people we seek to represent.

So I am delighted to be here, and I am particularly delighted to pay tribute to the work of Maurice Frankel who has for many years been a tireless campaigner for freedom of information. I think it is true to say that his enormous efforts and the efforts of the Campaign have kept this issue high on the political agenda and we now have a situation where action on this issue is supported by four voters in five. And I think that the case for freedom of information is actually getting stronger not weaker.

In today’s world, as we know, information is power and there has been a huge explosion, in the communications industries in recent years. Computers are now going to be standard in every office and in an increasing number of private homes. Often, as I know all too well, instead of parents teaching children how to operate them its the other way round. But the Internet has made instantaneous electronic communications an every day fact of life for millions of people. We have new TV and radio stations and a whole host of other sources of information. Knowledge is everywhere and people demand more information from their government, from their local councils, from their health service, from their quangos, from other organisations, from private sector organisations as well as those operating publicly.

Now it is fairly clear and obvious to see the case even from the events of the past few days, when a health scare like BSE occurs, the public want to know the facts, people want to know what the scientific advice is in full, and they need to be sure that the public interest has always comes first. They want to know if there was any relaxation of regulations which resulted in public safety being compromised. They want to know what the risks are and whether the food they eat and the food they feed to their children is safe, and they want to know how to find out.

And the whole sorry saga of how this matter has been handled has resulted in the loss of public trust in government. It is because we have given so many absolute assurances in the past, so categorically, without necessarily providing the information to back it up that there is such little faith in what is said now. The only way to begin to restore people’s trust is therefore to be completely open about what the risks are and to take whatever action is necessary to restore and renew confidence in our beef industry. And I think that that is the very least that the public have a right to expect.

And before I go on to talk about Labour’s commitment to the area of freedom of information I would like if I might just to set this argument in context, because 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 over the next few years. We did a press conference this morning, myself and Gordon Brown about insecurities, talking of BSE, and we were trying to work out what the best examples of insecurity were, and I said to Gordon ‘What is the best example in the country of insecurity’ and he said, ‘Ask four and a half million cows’. I have an extraordinary view of them sort of hanging on every word of Stephen Dorrell and Douglas Hogg. I hope they made more sense than the rest of the population, but anyway, I digress.

As I said information is power and any government’s attitude about sharing information with the people actually says a great deal about how it views power itself and how it views the relationship between itself and the people who elected it. I want to say two things about this, one of which is very obvious, and one of which is less obvious.

The crucial question is does the government regard people’s involvement in politics as being restricted to periodic elections? Or, does it regard itself as in some sense in a genuine partnership with people? And the government’s attitude to what it is prepared to tell people and the knowledge it will share with them says a great deal about where it stands on that matter.

My argument is that if a government is genuine about wanting a partnership with the people who it is governing, then the act of government itself must be seen in some sense as a shared responsibility and the government has to empower the people and give them a say in how that politics is conducted.

Now that is an obvious point, familiar to any one who supports a Freedom of Information Act. I think less obvious is the second point, that in today’s world, I believe that there is a limit to what government can do, and the power of society or community to act and to influence the lives of the individuals within it depends on a far more diverse and diffuse set of relationships than, if you like, a concept of government that would have been more natural or more easily explicable forty or fifty years ago. I don’t believe it is possible for government to govern effectively now, unless it governs in some sense in a relationship of partnership with the people whom it is governing. It is one of the reasons why decentralisation of power is actually in the interests of government. People often say to me today: everyone says this before they get into power, then, after they get into power you start to read the words of the government on the screen and they don’t seem so silly after all. You can see the point of them and all the rest of it.

I actually believe that if we want to make government effective in the modern world it simply is not possible to do that on the basis of government just handing down tablets of stone. In fact, you can see, in my view, both with Scott and BSE it would have been far better if government had been more open, far better actually for the proper conduct of government.

Now the present government claim that they are in favour of open government but that a Freedom of Information Act is not the way forward. Tonight, I am not going to say the current government have done nothing positive in the field, because that would not be true. Indeed, as James [Cornford] was accepting, the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank of England, their more open meetings, is obviously an example of that. How much comfort they take from that I’m not sure. But it certainly is. Their introduction of a Code on Open Government and the Ombudsman’s vigorous application of it, these are steps forward, and I think we should acknowledge that sensibly. But I would say however that in truth, what they have underlined is the need for action on a much greater scale. [Note: TV cameras leave] You can certainly tell what the sound bite was tonight. People will be saying to me: why didn’t he say anything about a Freedom of Information Act? That’s what he’s meant to be talking about.

Now the Code was brought into force on an Easter bank holiday during a parliamentary recess which is not exactly the best way to draw attention to something. Actually I used to think, indeed and still do think, the best way to publicise something is to leak it to the press, preferably to the Guardian newspaper. I certainly found that at the TUC last year.

I think that during the first eight months of its life, in relation to the Code the Government spent about 5% of the amount publicising the Code as they did publicising the Citizens Charter over a similar period. They have in fact, I believe, not paid for a single press advertisement to tell people of their rights to government information. Indeed, my colleague Tony Wright has calculated that the Department of Environment, for example, has spent just £170 telling people about open government. Now I have heard of value for money, but this seems ridiculous.

And the one home truth I would have thought about a Code on open government, is that there’s not much point in keeping it secret. Even for those who know about the Code and who use it, the process has been shown in certain circumstances to be deeply flawed. To be fair, the Parliamentary Ombudsman in his annual report published last week has complained often of time consuming delay in responding to requests for information and I think, genuinely wants to see the situation improved. That’s the real problem with the situation at present. The government grants information when it wants to. What is needed is a change in culture and a statutory obligation on government to make it a duty to release information to the people who elect the government.

The government acknowledged the need for some statutory action when they published the Code. They said it would be followed up by legislation which allowed people access to information held on personal files and to health and safety information and they also promised to review the secrecy clauses in some two hundred other statutes. Yet three years later and three Queens Speeches later the legislation has not come forward, nor has the promised review taken place. So I don’t really believe that they can argue the lack of parliamentary time is the reason for delay. This one is the lightest legislative sessions anyone can remember. The bill of course would receive the support of the Parliamentary Labour Party if it did so. So, it’s not the fragility of their majority, or otherwise, in the House of Commons.

The conclusion is, I think, that they still do not treat it with sufficient seriousness. There is still far too much addiction to secrecy and wish to conduct government business behind closed doors.

Now the most obvious example, of course, is the Scott affair because I believe that that report showed that the culture of secrecy permeates almost every single aspect of government activity. And I agree with James that it was a pretty devastating indictment of the culture of secrecy. Information was treated as a precious resource to be given out only when absolutely necessary and even then not in full. And I may say the way it was conducted beforehand, with my colleague Robin Cook undergoing the most rapid reading programme ever known in the history of mankind, was an indication of how that culture of secrecy actually operated right up to the delivery of the report itself.

I believe, if the case was not unanswerable before, Scott has made the case for a Freedom of Information Act absolutely unanswerable now, not just because of how it might have applied in the specific case, and that can be debated, but also because of the sea change it would bring in attitudes towards the release of information.

Our commitment to a Freedom of Information Act is clear, and I reaffirm it here tonight. We want to end the obsessive and unnecessary secrecy which surrounds government activity and make government information available to the public unless there are good reasons not to do so. So the presumption is that information should be, rather than should not be, released. In fact, we want to open up the quango state and the appointed bodies, which will of course exist under any government, but which should operate in a manner which exposes their actions to proper public scrutiny.

Freedom of information legislation exists in many other countries, including the United States and Canada and Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and France. The countries have sensible exemptions which the public here would understand and support. Information relating to national security, to law enforcement, to commercial confidentiality, to personal privacy, should of course be subject to exemption, as should the policy advice given by civil servants to ministers. But even with these kinds of exemption, there would still be vast swathes of government activity which would be exposed to public examination and to public debate.

And the Act would also be of practical use to individuals. In recent years we have finally been allowed to have access to our medical records, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Why should we stop there? Why should what is held on other personal files not also be available for us to see? At present we have a mish-mash of rules which allows us to see some files and not others, partly dependent on whether they are held on computer or held manually. But I believe there is a strong case for taking a consistent approach to giving people access to what is held on file about them subject of course to those obvious exemptions.

The Act would also contain provisions similar to those outlined in the Public Interest Disclosure bill, and I would pay tribute again to what Don Touhig has done. That bill which is presently before Parliament, which is widely supported, is designed to protect those who reveal evidence of serious malpractice, provided they are acting in good faith and, as we saw from the list of the preconditions, have raised the matter internally first. Indeed that is not so different from the requirements in the new code for civil servants to report, I quote, illegal or improper or unethical actions in government where they see it. Again what is important is to protect the public interest.

It is not a question of absolutes, but it is a question of balance, and the present balance is surely wrong. It is wrong not merely in relation to the public sector. It is, as we have seen from the Awards that have been given, wrong in relation to the private sector as well. Of course, there will be elements which are so confidential, commercially for example, they cannot or should not be disclosed. But that would not obtain in the vast bulk of area and very often there will be a direct public interest in having information disclosed rather than actually concealed. A Freedom of Information Act would entitle the public to government information and would leave it to government to justify why information should not be released. I don’t believe that its impact would simply be in the pure matter of legislation, in the detail of the legislation. It would also signal a culture change that would make a dramatic difference to the way that Britain is governed. The very fact of its introduction will signal a new relationship between government and people: a relationship which sees the public as legitimate stakeholders in the running of the country and sees election to serve the public as being given on trust.

That is my view of how government should be. I believe in the programme of constitutional change that the Labour Party has outlined. I think that a Freedom of Information Act is an important and essential part of that.

I hope you understand from what I have said this evening that I regard it not merely as simply a list of commitments that we give because at some point in time, someone got up and agitated for it and party conference passed a resolution. It is genuinely about changing the relationship in politics today.

There is so much disaffection from politics, so much disillusion with it, and one of the very clear and simple reasons is that we live in a modern and far better educated and far more open and far more assertive democracy and country – and it is good that people feel in that way. The irony is that the system of government is about fifty, sixty, seventy years behind the actual feelings and sentiments of the broad majority of people. A Freedom of Information Act is not just important in itself. It is part of bringing our politics up to date, of letting politics catch up with the aspirations of people and delivering not just more open government but more effective, more efficient, government for the future.

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